By Holly Crocco
Members of the Carmel Central Schools community showed up in force at the March 21 school board meeting, urging the administration and board to take harsher action against the students who created racist and threatening social media videos, and to do more to promote a safer, more inclusive atmosphere for all students.
In February, a couple of Carmel High School students shared videos on TikTok that used artificial intelligence to impersonate district administrators and members of the sheriff’s department, pairing videos clips of these staff members with fake audio that had been dubbed over, so it appeared as though they were saying things they actually were not.
The audio is appalling, not only spreading racism but threatening a mass school shooting and other violence.
“As an organization committed to diversity and inclusion, the Carmel Central School District Board of Education is appalled at, and condemns, these recent videos, along with the blatant racism, hatred and disregard for humanity displayed in some of them,” the board expressed in a written statement shortly after the videos surfaced.
“Words in a statement alone feel inadequate,” the board wrote. “We must go beyond words. Collectively, we must work to end racism. We must look within ourselves and reflect on how we may be propagating racist stereotypes, policies and conditions… We must listen and learn, and then we must act. To do the first without the second is simply not an option.”
However, many community members say the district’s “inaction” speaks louder than its words, and said they are unsatisfied with the repercussions for the students who made the videos – calling for their arrest and expulsion – and are worried about the safety of all students in the district.
During last week’s meeting, parent Kimberly Nieves urged the district to expel the students responsible for the videos. “That’s what we’re asking for and we’re not going to stop until it happens,” she said.
Fellow parent Mariella Ramirez agreed, adding, “I expect that your commitment to our children will lead to the consequences that will send a strong message.”
After the videos were shared and the students who created them we identified, the district stated that they were being dealt with per the district’s code of conduct, along with parental input. However, parents who probed the sheriff’s department for answers later learned that a handgun was found in at least one of the homes of the video-makers.
Parent Jim Wise accused the district or not reporting incidents of racism in the district as they are required to be under the state’s Dignity for All Students Act and Red Flag Law. He questioned the lone incident that was recorded under DASA in the 2020-21 school year, as well as the six incidents in 2019-20 and the zero reported in 2018-19.
“I’m here to talk about what the district is not doing to protect black and brown students,” said Wise, who said the recent TikTok videos are just the tip of the iceberg. “I think you’ll hear tonight that there’s a lot more going on,” he said.
Pierre Claude said racist and threatening behavior is cyclical. “The first stage starts at home, with what kids are being taught, and there’s not a lot that we can do about that,” he said. “But once those kids are turned loose and they’re sent into our school systems, then it becomes your responsibility to police them. And then after they get released from school system, they get released into the streets where it is the police department’s responsibility.
“So what we need to do here is stop it before it goes further,” continued Claude. “It’s not like you guys don’t know what needs to happen. I don’t know why anyone is holding back on taking actions that need to be taken.”
Andre Lyons said that as soon as the district knew of the videos, it should have alerted parents and students to the threats so they could chose whether they felt safe going to school or sending their children to school that day.
“While I am angry with those three teens (who made the videos), I am very upset with the sheriff’s department, the district attorney and the school district in how they handed this situation,” he said.
Sade Wise said the threats in the videos need to be taken seriously.
“I’m talking to you about something that can actually take a life – bullets and hatred,” she said. “Today is March 21, 2023. It is the 80th day of the year, and we have had over 100 mass shootings in the United States; 117, to be exact…
“Firearms are the number-one cause of death for children in the United State,” continued Wise. “I didn’t say ‘black children,’ I didn’t say ‘brown children.’ I didn’t specify. White children, too. Because when a school shooter decides to act on their threats, bullets do not know color.”
She joined the other parents in calling for the arrest of the students who made the videos, as well as psychological evaluations and the intervention of Family Court. “I’m not leaving it up to the parents, because that’s where they got the ideas from,” she said.
Jeanne Lambert agreed that the threats in the videos should not be downplayed, and that the students should be arrested. “I think we should actually take that seriously,” she said. “It’s a terrorist offense, I’m pretty sure.”
Mike Webb had an unpopular solution: “If half of the teachers were armed and trained in the use of firearms, then that were made known to the general student body and the world at large – but not identify which teacher is armed… that would do a lot to cut down on silly people making silly threats and thinking maybe they can run into a school and fire it up,” he said. “Because if they thought that some of the people they’re going to potentially injure might be shooting back, it might cause them to think and say, ‘Hey, maybe we don’t really want to do this.’”
Monique Felder said educators need training to handle racial bias and how to promote equity.
“The thing with race is, nobody can choose how they’re born, so to be mean or have hate against someone for something they cannot control, it is racism,” she said. “But people will not identify themselves as that because it is something bad. What we can say is that in school we will teach children that, maybe your aren’t racist, but you may have a bias and that bias can come off racist, and you need to study why that bias is there… You need to speak to and educate the parents because the parents are the once that are teaching this.”
After almost two hours of public comment, members of the school board assured parents and students that their concerns were heard.
Board President Debra Heitman-Cayea thanked everyone for participating in the discussion. “I know there’s a lot of pain and that is hard to see, but we are going to try to help the situation, so the more suggestions we get that we can process, that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.
Vice President Melissa Orser said her own family has experienced threats in the district.
“I am a mom of a child who has been in your situation, who has had no safe place in this school, who has left this school and came back,” she told community members. “And my heart hurts. And though I am not black or brown, my children have also on multiple occasions been victim of antisemitism in this district.”
Trustee Matt Morello, who said he is married to a woman of color and has two kids in the district, called the dialogue heard at the meeting “haunting” and that, unfortunately, he has also seen and heard it firsthand.
Trustee John Curzio II said he knows “words can be hollow,” but said the board is “committed to fixing this. We are going to work very diligently to accomplish that,” he said.
While parents and students stormed the Carmel School Board meeting, other community members headed over to the County Legislature’s Protective Services Committee meeting to ask Putnam lawmakers how they are going to join the fight to promote a safer school community.
“This is the last straw. There has been a long tradition of sweeping racist and homophobic behavior under the rug in Carmel and this solidified it,” said Eileen McDermott of Brewster. “If the sheriff and the Legislature want to pretend that racism doesn’t really exist in Putnam County… and that parents are just overreacting, that’s your prerogative. But continued inaction is not going to be accepted by the community anymore.”
Linda Harris noted that in 2018 when a similar incident happened at the Brewster Central School District, the suspect was arrested – which has not been the case with the recent threatening videos that involve Carmel schools.
“Where is the zero tolerance in all of this?” she asked, calling the inaction a “slap on the wrist and a slap in the face.”
Many of the legislators said they had not seen the videos, but also said the descriptions of them are not something they condone.
“Your comments certainly don’t fall on deaf ears,” said Legislator Ginny Nacerino, R-Patterson. “We support diversity, we support equal treatment for every single citizen in Putnam County. So we will strive to do better, that I promise you.”
“Everything you describe is deplorable,” added Legislator Paul Jonke, R-Brewster. “That is not what Putnam County is, should be, or should be perceived as.”