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East Meadow alumni demand district take a stand against racism

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Students and alumni of the East Meadow School District are asking that the Board of Education and members of the administration take steps to address racism and increase cultural representation in the community.

Three East Meadow High School alumni spoke about their concerns during the public comment period near the end of a three-hour-long Board of Education meeting on July 7, which was shared by nearly 100 residents via Zoom. 

“I know, based on my experience in the district and talking to others, that there are many students that do not feel adequately protected or safe in this community,” said Jake Schneebaum, a rising junior at New York University. “I think we would be failing, as a community, if we did not take action to address that.”

Schneebaum joined fellow alumni to draft an open letter that he recently sent to the district and the Board of Education, asking that they develop a plan to prevent racism and foster a more welcoming community for a diverse student body. Hundreds of students, alumni and residents signed the letter.

“This is not something that is going to change overnight,” Schneebaum said, “but this is absolutely something that needs to be addressed, and needs to be addressed soon.”

His concerns echo those of an alumnus who wrote a letter to the East Meadow Herald two years ago. Jordan Diamond, a recent graduate of Duke University, wrote about seeing a Facebook photo of students at a July Fourth party posing in front of a Confederate flag.

The photo, Diamond wrote, brought to mind a spate of anti-Semitic incidents at East Meadow High School when he was a junior in 2014. That year, a student posted a photo of herself at prom with a swastika drawn on her hand. In the subsequent months, swastikas were found on cafeteria tables, in gym locker rooms and in Holocaust studies textbooks.

In response, the school hosted a mandatory Holocaust assembly. But Diamond called for more in his letter. “Our schools need to further embrace educational programs in tolerance, and point directly to these acts as condemned examples of hate,” he wrote.

At the board meeting, referring to past incidents of bigotry, Schneebaum said, “I know changes have occurred, and this board and administration has done more  . . . but we’re facing one of the biggest civil rights movements in modern history, and for us to say ‘Well, this is what we’ve done so far and we’re proud of that work’ is just missing the mark.”

He and the other alumni who spoke were praised by trustees and by Superintendent Kenneth Card, who is originally from Belize. “All the adults who are here right now heard you, and heard you loud and clear,” Card said, “that things needs to change in our community so that no student or no adult in our community feels disrespected because of who they love, the color of their skin, the religion they practice or where they come from.”

When Card became superintendent in 2017, he said, he tried to conduct a district-wide survey that asked staff about their race, sexual orientation and other demographic characteristics. The effort was met with pushback that “shocked and stunned” him, he said, and the project was ultimately abandoned. 

“I’m glad you guys are here,” Card told the alumni, “because it will push us to do exactly that again.” Card was referring to conducting another survey, as well as not shying away from talking about race and other topics some may consider controversial. 

According to the most recent data from the State Education Department, in the 2016-17 school year, 56 percent of students in the East Meadow School District were white, 22 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 18 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, 4 percent were Black, fewer than 1 percent were Native American and fewer than 1 percent were multiracial.

“As much as we like to pride ourselves on our diversity in our community, that diversity is not represented in our staff,” Schneebaum said, adding that he never had a Black teacher in his years at the district, and had fewer than five who weren’t white.

Card said he was taking part in job fairs that focused on diversity, and seeking job training on “cultural competency.” According to the National Education Association, cultural competency is defined as “the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.” The NEA also states that cultural competency involves seeing students’ cultural differences as strengths in the classroom rather than as isolating factors.

Card said he wanted to hold a board meeting dedicated to the subject, at which others who signed Schneebaum’s letter could voice their concerns. “We need you to engage in this conversation so we could move this conversation forward,” he told the alumni at the board meeting. “I applaud you, and hopefully next time it won’t be at the end of the meeting. It will be at a forum.”