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Diversity education debated at Merrick board meeting

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Dozens of parents turned out at the July 12 Merrick Board of Education meeting to make their positions heard, both for and against, furthering diversity education in the district’s three elementary schools.

It was the board’s reorganization meeting for the upcoming school year. Additionally, there was a presentation by the board regarding the further teaching of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, to elementary students. The board was met with both support and opposition from members of the community.

Many attendees were unsure of what DEI meant, and believed that the board wanted to teach students about Critical Race Theory. CRT is an academic movement that seeks to understand how American law approaches racial justice.

“Diversity and inclusion learning is not critical race theory,” said board President Nancy Kaplan in her introduction to the presentation.

The board wanted to be transparent to parents about their beliefs, Kaplan said.

“We felt it was necessary for everyone to know what the district is doing,” she added. “Every student has the right to learn no matter who they are. We will listen to everything on your mind.”

The presentation by the board was distributed to attendees in a pamphlet and featured the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mission statement that was written by the board in 2010. Dr. Dominick Palma, superintendent of Merrick Schools, read the mission statement aloud.

“In order to prepare our students for a diverse and global world, we must promote a culture of inclusion in which everyone feels valued, respected and supported,” Palma said. 

The school district has long promoted inclusion in their schools. A diversity committee was founded in 2008, and an Equity in Education Committee was founded in 2018. The district has also hosted a series of DEI professional development sessions since 2006, and abides to the New York State Education Department’s guidelines for teaching DEI.

Amongst the attendees that spoke was Kristin O’Leary, an ELS teacher for the Merrick School District. O’Leary was openly in support of the district’s DEI initiative.

Moved to tears by the importance of teaching students about acceptance, O’Leary said, “It is important to let students know they are seen, heard and cared for.”

A parent in attendance, Dr. Jill Kehoe, who is also a professor for the City University of New York, said that “steps must be taken” to teach kids about inclusion at a young age, and that not teaching about DEI would “inadvertently cripple our children as learners.”

The board was faced with opposition by parents who believed that the district did not have the right to teach students about understanding differences. They believed that these lessons should be taught at home.

One father said, “You have to teach what the community and the state sees fit.”

The board had previously stated that they had not yet implemented any new DEI curriculum at the schools. Parents opposed pointed out that on the district’s website, there were links for “Anti-racist Resources for Families.” 

“The board should not be implementing things at the taxpayers expense,” said another parent who opposed.

After all attendees had spoken, the board thanked them for sharing their opinions, and assured them that their questions and concerns were heard and would be answered. Kaplan said that the board would continue meeting over the next two days to further discuss DEI and other programs for the upcoming school year.

Parents were encouraged to reach out directly to the board with any further questions. The board can be reached via email. Their emails are listed on the district’s website, merrick.k12.ny.us.

“I hope we all leave here recognizing what we have in Merrick,” Kaplan said. “We are all Merokeans who care about our children.”