ITHACA, N.Y. — In a room at 700 Lake St. Tuesday night, students sat on the floor crammed in between chairs and tables. Parents and community members were in the seats, standing along the walls and overflowing into the hallways. They were all there to demand pioneering changes in the district to candidly teach students about race and decolonization.

Five high school students, who started the activist group Students United Ithaca, commanded the room, wearing black and speaking uncomfortable truths to adults.

Students Eamon Nunn-Makepeace, Prachi Ruina, Maddi Carroll, Ari Cummings, and Annabella Mead-VanCort became the center of national attention after they called into question the casting of the school”s spring play, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Esmerelda, the French Roma female lead, had gone to a white student.

Ruina said during the board meeting Tuesday that while she didn’t necessarily expect to be cast as the lead role, she also didn’t expect the role to go to a white student. She said it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted the teens to speak out about the lack of diversity and casting practices at the school. The way to address that, they suggested, was by discussing the issues of race, colonialism and anti-racism not just within the arts, but on a district-wide level in classrooms.

After some local media attention, the national right-wing Breitbart News Network picked up the story and reported that the students were primarily protesting the casting of a white student as Esmeralda. The story neglected to mention that the students were primarily protesting what they’ve said is a culture at the school that lacks diversity.

Ruina pointed out again that the outcry for diversity and race education was never solely about the casting of Esmeralda.

After the national news flurry, she said, “Our families and our homes became the target of very specific death threats and threats of physical violence and (threats of) burning our homes to the ground. The school has told the five of us that we can come talk to them and that we are in a safe space.”

But aside from an occasional police presence outside the school for a few hours, the district as all but ignored the issue, she said.

She asked, “Is race such a taboo that you can’t even talk about it when white supremacists are targeting children of color and their white allies?”

Several of the threats against students were read aloud at the meeting.

“After I’m done with you you’ll be swinging from a tree,” one threat stated. Another said, “Again, I’ll personally kill you n—–.”

The harassment against them hasn’t just been online. Students said they’ve been blamed by their peers for creating an unsafe environment and been verbally harassed on the street.

Nunn-Makepeace said he was getting ready to go on a jog when a blue Chevy truck drove by him. He said four white males, who he believes were Cornell University students, shouted at him, “There’s that theater n—– right there!”

“Let me just say, I am sick and tired of the lack of conversation and education on race our school has. The things that I’ve been experienced during this movement — the hate the threats on my life — they all come from the lack of race education in every school system. Why can’t we change that? Why can’t we change the way our school talks about race or, in most, cases let’s make it an actual conversation,” Nunn-Makepeace, said.

Cummings said that the school district’s refusal to discuss the Hunchback of Notre Dame incident has caused confusion at the school and confusion is the foundation of racism.

“The students aren’t safe because white supremacists groups are threatening us. That’s what’s going on. This is not our fault. We are not the threat,” he said.

Carroll said after the meeting that seniors at the school are required to take a government class where they spend a week discussing race. When she took the class, they discussed issues like the war on drugs, privilege, disparity in education.

“It was really great, but it felt like… it sucked (because) it’s the first semester of my senior year. Why didn’t we have that so much before? And (it was) only a week long,” Carroll said.

“What we’re also hoping for is a lot more in every class…every class for there to be a conversation about race,” Mead-VanCort said.

Student also linked informed education about racism to school shootings.

For instance, the shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead was committed by Nikolas Cruz, who expressed racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic views. 

“When I first heard of the school shooting, the only thing that went through my head was that I wouldn’t know what to do in that situation.  This is another subject that the school has failed to educate the students on. I’m a junior at Ithaca High School, and I have never once had a lock down drill or (been) spoken to about what to do in a school shooting situation. You are educators. Educate,” Cummings said.

Superintendent Luvelle Brown disputed claims that the district has not taken threats against students seriously, noting that he has also felt unsafe since the national spotlight has been on the school.

“I understand what it feels like to be unsafe, but it hasn’t stopped me from having the conversation (about race) either,” he said.

He said he understands that people want immediate action and for the school to quickly implement conversations on race and diversity. But he said the district is taking a thoughtful approach to the situation.

“There’s a lot of things we have been doing, and we need to do a lot more,” Brown said. “What I won’t do, and you can be unhappy with me if you want, will be to go out there and say ‘I want every teacher to talk about race tomorrow.”

He said requiring teachers who are either uncomfortable or untrained to talk about a range of diversity and oppression will not work well.

Brown said, “I’m asking for your patience as we build our approach thought approach to anti-racism curriculum, whatever that is…”

Watch the board meeting below:

Featured photo: Annabella Mead-VanCort speaks to the Ithaca City School District Board of Directors on Tuesday. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.