By Holly Crocco
The Carmel School Board has directed the district administration to revise a report that is to be summited to the State Education Department under the Dignity for All Students Act, which board members say is wholly inaccurate, as it states that zero incidents of harassment, bullying, racism or other actions were reported in the district during the 2022-23 school year.
“We’ve heard dozens of parents come into this room over the past three years and talk about what their children have faced in these schools,” said board member James Wise, who reminded the board of the several TikTok videos that surfaced in the spring, made by Carmel High School students, that threatened violence in the district against “black and brown students.”
“The way we’ve been reporting this has been badly broken for years now,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at how bad it’s gotten.”
DASA seeks to provide all students in New York schools “with a safe and supportive environment, free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on a school property or bus, or at a school function,” according to the State Education Department. The School Safety & Educational Climate summary data collection form is the vehicle by which districts report incidents to the state through DASA.
Wise spoke passionately about not only the way the district goes about reporting incidents in the future, but fessing up to the state about the fact that what the district has reported thus far is incorrect – and not knowingly submitting incorrect data going forward.
“We’ve been failing to protect our students for many, many years,” he said. “We have been substantially out of compliance with DASA for the entire 10 years of that law’s existence.”
“In the entirety of the 202-23 school year, this report states that there were zero incidents of racism, harassment or bullying, based on race in Carmel High School,” said Wise. The same goes for incidents against people of certain ethnic groups, national origin and religion.
“These reports are a slap in the face for every parent who has stood up in this room and talked about what their children faced on the bus, in the halls, in the classroom,” he said. “These reports are a slap in the face for every student who faced violence, who was shoved into a locker, who was threatened with rape, who was called the N-word on the bus, and told that we care and we, the district, are going to do something about this.”
Wise called the district’s inaction a systematic failure, and was adamant that the report not be sent to Albany the way it is written.
“I understand that we have failed – that we have comprehensively covered up these incidents at every level,” he said. “At the building level, at the district level, at the board level.”
Board Vice President Valerie Crocco questioned how the district can submit an accurate report when it doesn’t have the documentation to support it. “The problem is we are not going to get that information,” she said.
In that case, Wise said the district needs to admit it is out of compliance, rather than send a false report.
Board member Melissa Orser explained that DASA requires reporting of harassment that takes place at any school function, such as extracurricular and sport events, even if they take place when visiting other districts. In addition, she said “threats” are considered any verbal, telephone, written or electronic communication.
“My issue isn’t just with this report, because that’s just what’s being told; my issue is with the way Carmel Central School District even investigates DASA. We don’t,” she said.
This goes for any staff member – from teachers, to bus drivers, cafeteria monitors, administrators and coaches – who witness any type or harassment or is told about it, and does nothing, she said.
“It’s not just a slap in the face of the people that have come up here, it’s a slap in the face of every good educator, every good administrator, every board member that has come up here and tried to do right by this community, that nobody’s following these,” said Orser. “There is a responsibility of our staff – when you see something, say something. What’s happened? Where is this broken and how do we fix this? … I’m done burying my head in the sand.”
Further, Orser said the “spirit” of DASA is about changing the school culture, not about addressing individual incidents. “It’s not about the discipline of the kids,” she said. “DASA is to help districts look at their culture and have the ability to measure and then change.”
She told Interim Superintendent of Schools Joseph McGrath, who has only been on the job since the end of June, that he has his work cut out for him. “With your leadership you have a really great opportunity to move us in the right direction, but it’s not going to happen without some sort of intervention,” she said.
McGrath said it’s his priority to make sure all students know they are valued.
“We’re seeing there are some issues with how the DASA is reported and how the DASA is processed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something that we’re going to solve in one minute, but it is a step. And I want to be super clear that it’s a process.”
He said that while the district is determined to have a plan in place by the first day of school as to how to properly report instances of bullying, harassment or other threats, it may take some time to adapt.
“This is really about protecting all of our students,” he said. “We are using this as one vehicle to really take care of our students.”
Parent Andrae Lyons said the report is a disgrace and urged the district not to submit it as is.
“Either the teachers are turning a blind eye, the community is turning a blind eye, or it’s just a massive coverup in which you try to group everyone and try to show just the happy thoughts,” he said. “If you are disproving or not affirming others’ thoughts and feelings, then you essentially become part of the cover.”