(Photo from Town of Newfield)

NEWFIELD, N.Y.—Newfield Central School District has recently been forced to reckon with an apparently pervasive pattern of racist bullying and behavior permeating inside its classrooms, as exposed in vivid detail by two recent alumnae of Newfield High School to the district’s Board of Education at a recent meeting.

Recent graduates Lena Kennell and Caitlin Howell have been the primary drivers behind the campaign, both in the form of a Change.org petition and presentations to the Newfield Board of Education detailing experiences they gathered from other students. Those experiences largely deal with the daily lives of Newfield students and alumni of color, and came in the form of a four-part PowerPoint calling for accountability, demanding and suggesting tangible improvements and providing resources for development.

Testimonials from 15 different people connected to the district either as students, alumni or parents, are included in the PowerPoint, detailing incidents of their experiences that are fairly shocking in their blatantness. They range from one student being tokenized and marginalized for being the only Black student in their class during race discussions, to repeated use of racial slurs in person and on social media (including screenshots), to a Newfield High School student posting pictures on social media posing in Ku Klux Klan garb and featuring the infamous “14 Words” slogan that is a favorite among white supremacists: “We must secure the existence of our race, and a future for white children.”

There are a blend of first-hand and second-hand accounts. Interim Newfield Central School District Superintendent Eric Hartz said he could not comment on whether or not the students featured in the PowerPoint had been punished for their actions.

“I always knew that it wasn’t the most welcoming environment,” Howell said. The point was further highlighted during her senior year of high school, when a Black sixth-grader sat next to her on the school bus because he kept arguing with a white classmate—though Howell then learned that the classmate had called him the N-word, causing the tension, but the classmate was not punished.

“I was so taken aback that this was the experience people were having in high school, there were terrible stories,” Howell said, explaining her reaction when collecting the stories. The PowerPoint continues with sections on responsibility, detailing years of what Kennell and Howell feel is a pattern of evasion on the part of the district’s administration, at least under prior leadership, deflecting blame onto parents or abdicating responsibility for students’ individual conduct.

“It has been made clear that the district’s stance on racism is a passive one, when it should be active,” the PowerPoint states.

The petition, which stems from Kennell’s and Howell’s presentation, calls for five specific reforms from the Newfield Board of Education and Newfield Central School District: a statement by the district before Jan. 21, 2021 addressing the district’s equity issues and laying out a plan of action; the establishment of an equity task-force, which would include “Board members, administrators, staff, teachers, students, caregivers and community members,” and be tasked with creating a corresponding equity plan and ensuring its implementation. According to the petition, the plan must include “new opportunities for professional development on issues of race and equity and the implementation of anti-marginalization curriculum throughout grade levels.”

Further, the district should publish data related to student discipline, broken down to include demographics of those receiving punishments, the extent of the punishments, the type of violations, notation of any involvement of hate speech, and “other relevant data points.” In the same vein, the petition’s final point is that the district should include specific language in its student handbook concerning a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech.

Additionally, the Newfield Board of Education should make its meetings publicly available via recording on its website, a common practice to foster transparency. As of Dec. 30, 760 people have signed the petition total.

“We are hoping to push the new leadership in a direction that we haven’t gone before,” Kennell said.

At least to some extent, they’ve found success. In an email to the district community, Superintendent Hartz acknowledged the district’s issues in classrooms and laid out a plan to evaluate and improve the racial climate in Newfield schools.

“We acknowledge and are aware of the racial tensions in the Newfield School District,” he wrote on Dec. 10. “We want all members of our community to feel safe, listened to, and heard. We would like to take ownership of the current tensions and work toward a place of unity and healing in order to make certain our community is welcoming to all individuals and families, regardless of background or belief.”

The email includes a pledge from Hartz that the district will be forming a committee “aimed at addressing our short and long-term goals, and identifying areas of growth.” That committee, he said, will seek input from community leaders, experts, students, parents and community members and will focus on including those voices and considering their feedback, something Hartz particularly focused on.

Most prominently, Hartz said the district is working with Dr. Sharroky Hollie, the executive director of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, who will run five one hour virtual sessions for all Newfield staff, faculty and Board of Education members. His organization “works to transform the mindset and skill set of teachers, administrators and informal educators into practitioners of culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning.”

Hartz emphasized that there had been at least some movement on the issue before the presentation from Kennell and Howell. The district had been in touch with Dr. Nia Nunn, an Ithaca College professor and one of the leaders of the Southside Community Center, to initiate diversity and anti-racism training in the district in March 2020, but buildings were soon closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hartz said he began considering bringing in Hollie for help with the trainings when he was made interim superintendent in September.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” Hartz said of the district’s plan. “(The presentation) definitely brought some things to light. (…) These are things that we all knew we needed to do to move forward.”

While the fact that the incidents occurred is terrible, Hartz said, he is glad that they’ve been brought specifically to the district’s attention, including his own. He said that while an administrative position does hold the most power, it can also be the most removed from the routine occurrences in a school’s hallways.

Howell and Kennell are encouraged by the pledges so far, but don’t want that to be the end of the momentum on the topic.

“It’s a really, really good sign, and it’s not enough,” Kennell said. “Diversity training only helps to a certain point, after a certain point it’s no longer helpful. What we want to see is actual change within the curriculum and the policies and the way teachers are treating children. I hope that we see that, and this is a really good sign, but we’re going to continue to push that.”

The process won’t work, at least not in a meaningful, permanent way, if it takes place behind closed doors, either. Howell said she wants it to play out in the open and for Newfield officials to seek and accept help from people outside of the town in order to create lasting change.

“I don’t want people to come into the school and have to face racism every day,” Kennell said. “As more and more people are moving into Newfield, we need to address that.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com