The Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to rescind an appeal that questioned the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission’s (TCHRC) involvement in the case of Amelia Kearney v. Ithaca City School District.
The board admitted previous errors in judgment and conceded their original decision was misguided.
Robert Ainslie, a board member, expressed the board’s regret for their previous ruling.
“The choice to go to an appeal was simply not in the best interest of this district or this community,” he said.
The passing of the resolution was met by a standing ovation of students from the high school, Ithaca College and Cornell University and parents and community members.
In the case of Kearney v. ICSD, Amelia Kearney, a student at Ithaca College, said that during the 2005–06 school year, her 14-year-old daughter, Epiphany, was spit at on the school bus and hit and threatened with violence and racial epithets by a group of white students. In her suit, Kearney alleged the district did not do enough to protect her child and denied her an adequate education under human rights law.
When the local chapter of the Human Rights Commission became involved in the case, the school board appealed. The board said involvement of the Human Rights Commission would force the school to break federal student privacy laws.
If the appeal was successful it would have set precedent in New York state that children could not be protected in education under human rights laws.
A rally was organized by a group of community members and college students to precede the meeting, which took place in the Kulp Auditorium at Ithaca High School (IHS), but bad weather forced the protesters inside. The emotions and sentiments echoed by the protesters carried into the heated meeting.
Ithaca College junior Billie Dawn Greenblatt participated in the rally and sat in on the board meeting. She said she attended to show support for the community.
“We were there to show community solidarity in response to the district’s handling of the issues,” she said.
Tyrell Lashley, African-Latino Society (ALS) spokesperson, also attended the board meeting. Lashley said ALS has provided support for Amelia Kearney and her family throughout the ordeal.
“We have always and will continue to support Amelia Kearney and turn in whatever direction she feels necessary for us to continue supporting her,” he said.
Lashley said the new decision by the board will affect generations of students in the future.
“The decision to rescind is huge due to the fact that it allows high school students an avenue for recourse,” he said.
Members of the community were provided the opportunity to voice their disappointment with the board’s original decision to file the appeal, as well as the performance of ICSD Superintendent Judith Pastel. Those present said Pastel had asked to shift the focus of the issue away from an act of discrimination to a matter of school safety.
One protestor periodically held up a sign throughout the meeting that read, “Pastel Resign 2nite.”
Board member Seth Peacock did not originally vote in favor of the appeal. He said it was time to hold the leadership of the school district accountable for its actions.
“The type of leadership [Pastel] can provide is not what the district needs,” said Peacock.
Board member Beth Kunz was also critical of the district’s previous stance.
“We are reactive and not proactive,” she said.
Pastel, who was present at the meeting, did not comment.
During the open floor session of the meeting, the crowd cheered as Amelia Kearney approached the microphone. Kearney thanked the audience for their support and said the district must address its issues, which affect students from all backgrounds.
“Parents in Caroline and Enfield have the same concern as parents downtown,” said Kearney. “Systemic changes, I think, need to take place.”