ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County legislators recognized five Ithaca High School students for speaking up about equity and inclusion at Ithaca High School, and denounced the hateful messages they have received for their activism.

The five leaders of Students United — Eamon Nunn-Makepeace, Annabelle Mead-VanCort, Ari Cummings, Prachi Ruina, and Maddi Carroll — were honored Tuesday as “Distinguished Youth” for contesting casting practices in the performing arts program. After their story and the play cancellation was picked up by media outlets like Fox News, the Daily Stormer and Breitbart, the students and their families were subjected to a flood of harassment and threats, including death threats.

With a resolution unanimously passed Tuesday, legislators denounced the “hate language and horrifying atrocities that the student leaders and families of Students United have been subjected to.”

Reading the legislation, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, who advanced the legislation, said further, “Tompkins County Legislature wishes to send a clear message to those perpetrators of the hateful, threatening messages that their actions will not be tolerated or accepted in this county and that we will employ any and all resources available to us within the extent of the law to repel such behaviors and protect the fine citizens of Tompkins County from any form of unspeakable hatred.”

Legislator Henry Granison introduced the award and quoted Martin Luther King Jr., stating “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Granison said Students United saw injustice in their local school system and instead of running from those injustices, they had the courage to face them head on and demanded to be heard.

The students raised concerns that ICSD performing arts had a history of nurturing and favoring white students and casting students of color in stereotypical roles. After demands for diversity and inclusion, the school district canceled the spring play, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Though it wasn’t certain there would be another spring play at first, ICSD recently announced they will put on a production of “Hairspray.”

Related: Ithaca teens receive death threats, harassment after ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ play cancellation

Related: Ithaca High School students, community demand pioneering education on race, school safety

Despite the backlash from the national media attention and threatening messages, Granison said the students and their families did not run and hide.

“They doubled down by asking the community to support their efforts even more. They sought light and love to combat the darkness and hatred. For their courage … and to continue their efforts in the face of  such hatred, this is why we are honoring them, the Students United, with the Distinguished Youth Award,” Granison said.

Sheriff Ken Lansing, who was not present but sent a letter to Legislature supporting the resolution. He said the law enforcement community appreciates community members who take the time to lead by example.

“The leaders of the Students United at Ithaca High School are a wonderful example of what our world desperately needs more of, hope,” Lansing wrote.

Nunn-Makepeace, Mead-VanCort, Cummings, Ruina and Carroll accepted the award surrounded by family and friends, and they received a standing ovation from legislators and public in the room.

Caroll said the award and support means so much to them. The other students echoed her sentiment.

“Having support from lots of people makes us feel like we can take on the world and it’s given us so much courage and made us so happy, so thank you for your love and for acknowledging the work that we’ve been doing,” Carroll said.

Read the full resolution below:

Resolution Supporting Inclusion and Rejecting Hateful Threats made Against Tompkins County Residents by Kelsey O’Connor on Scribd

Featured image: Students accept the Distinguished Youth Award at Tompkins County Legislature. Image provided.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.