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Abigail Santana's pictures
Abigail Santana's pictures


Racism in Carmel schools

Por María Puente Flores
May 2023
The Carmel School District in Putnam County has a student body of at least 40% non-white racialized individuals. For the past two months, a group of teenagers from the Carmel School District have been threatening racially diverse students because of their skin color. The situation has caused fear, insecurity, and anger among families and students in Black and Latino communities.
"Discrimination and racism have been happening for decades," says Abigail Santana, an Afro-Latina woman who has her daughter in one of the schools in the Carmel Central School District. "I've been here for 26 years and I experienced it myself going to school: being called nicknames and things like that. What made me speak up this time were the Tik Tok videos that high school students made."

The videos she refers to are racist diatribes that, among other insults, announce that "the legacy of the KKK will continue to reign" and threaten to "lynch Hispanics and blacks" and "bring their gun to school to shoot them all". Abigail Santana complains about the lack of communication from the school district: "They didn't tell us anything about this. They just told us that the teenagers were 'mocking' the teachers, and they didn't say that they had threatened some children, they didn't say that there was racial discrimination."

Abigail explains the problem with using words like teasing or joking: "One thing is a joke where you laugh with someone who is your friend, another thing is making fun of someone for the color of their skin. Using hate speech is not a joke, threatening to take someone's life is not a joke. All of that is serious. The fact that they describe it as 'after all, they are just kids' is unacceptable. That's why we've had children who still make threats up to this moment."

The first official statement issued by the Board of Education of the Carmel Central School District says that "The administration is aware of individuals on social media who posted false and inappropriate videos pretending to be members of the District and the Putnam County Sheriff's Department using artificial intelligence." They also add that the videos show "blatant racism, hatred, and contempt for humanity" and that "words in a statement alone feel insufficient. We must go beyond words. Collectively, we must work to end racism."

Still, the Sheriff and the district attorney refused to prosecute the perpetrators and there was no real punishment. "They literally gave a school vacation to the three fourteen-year-old high school students," Santana says. "These teenagers think they can do whatever they want. The school still has multiple threats. There was a seventh-grade student who tried to plan a mass shooting after the videos."

In response, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office issued a statement saying that "The Putnam County Sheriff's Office initiated an investigation. The suspect, who resides outside of the county, was quickly identified, located, and issued an appearance ticket for the Putnam County Family Court." They conclude their report saying that students, teachers, and employees were not in danger at the moment.

Abigail Santana notes that the school and district responses are very different from those of families: "We are outraged, we want answers, we want to know what's going on. The school is not transparent, they are very vague in the emails they send us, they don't give us the full picture, they hide information from us and try to sweep it under the rug. Every time we ask questions, they say they 'will get back to us' and just talk in circles."

Similarly, La Voz magazine tried to interview John Piscitella, the principal of George Fischer Middle School, who was personified in one of the racist diatribe videos. We received no comment despite multiple attempts to contact him. "The school board is afraid to jump big hurdles," says Abigail. "They are taking small steps and appeasing the community that doesn't want change instead of just changing. They shouldn't take so long to make these necessary changes."

"It's a diversity that is only being verbalized, or being put on paper but not in an action plan," says Norma Pereira, a woman from Guatemala who lives in Putnam County and whose 3 children graduated from one of the schools in the Carmel Central School District. She supports by doing translation work to connect the Spanish-speaking community with English-speaking parents. The community must ensure that minors are not left alone, says Norma: "We have to come together as grandparents, as parents, as minority people in the region. Our work is in unification because it's time to change this trajectory that hurts the children."

Abigail also talks about families' efforts to confront racism in the community. She says, "In such a short time we have built this community of people, we also did a protest. Soon we will launch a website, social media, we have t-shirts with our logo and we also have a Google form that allows people to give their testimony and nationality. We can share this and solve problems within the school and community, so we have a lot of things in progress!"

Many children have sent their powerful testimonies of discrimination in the Carmel Central School District.
One student says, "I heard one day: if you're going to live here in the United States, you should come here knowing English or not come to school. These people should go back to their country. I saw other students in the lunch line mocking and saying racist things to those who work for lunch services. When I tell people that I wasn't born in this country and migrated here, they comment things like: How did you manage to cross the border? Are you ever scared of being deported? I'll keep your secret then, I don't want others to know you're illegal."

Experiences like these are not unique. Another student writes, "Every person I talk to who is a student in this school has stories like this. Not everyone speaks up, but everyone has a story. And yet, the school completely washes their hands of it. It's mind-boggling and frankly, I can't wait to not be in this school anymore. But I worry about those who will continue to go through this school district and have to endure the discrimination that has harmed so many children. It's horrendous and unfair."

Students also have the language to name the systemic problems they face. One student points out, "Racism, classism, and sexism. Let's be honest, we can't cover all of these topics in one year but we can still talk about them. No. It's March, I looked at the curriculum and we were supposed to talk about it in November. One of the teachers said the reason behind this was that they used to talk about racism first, but many people dropped out because they felt uncomfortable and many of them were their white students. Clearly, the comfort of white students is prioritized over the voices of people racialized by their skin color in this class. Even in the best places, our voices are ignored."

Hostility towards people who are not white has produced a strong determination in the African American and Latino community to achieve true equity; which necessarily involves the eradication of white supremacist values. Abigail finally mentions that parents and students have started a large group. It's called CAFÉ, which stands for Community Alliance For Empowerment. They meet twice a month to keep the community informed. They demand diversity and inclusion in the school. They request to meet with the superintendent once a month to ensure updates are made and authorities are held accountable.

CAFÉ: En Facebook: Abi Jasmin, email: [email protected]
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La Voz, Cultura y noticias hispanas del Valle de Hudson



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