Syosset Central School District Establishes Anti-Bias Taskforce

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Syosset Central School District Establishes Anti-Bias Taskforce

Dr. Thomas Rogers, the superintendent of the Syosset Central School District, provided an update about the newly established Anti-Bias Taskforce during the Dec. 4 Board of Education meeting. The Board of Education voted in favor of establishing the task force during the Nov. 27 special meeting after antisemitic symbols were seen on a whiteboard at H.B. Thompson Middle School and a racial slur was written on a desk at Syosset High School early on in November.
Dr. Rogers, sitting at a distance from the Board of Education members because he was exposed to COVID over the prior weekend, said that on Dec. 1, he met with the newly appointed task force co-chairs, North Shore Synagogue Rabbi Jaimee Shalhevet, local leader Dr. Uzma Syed and Faith Lutheran Church and School Pastor Rebecca Sheridan.
“At our planning meeting, we identified organizations that represented broad constituencies within the Syosset learning community and the community at large that have a stake in addressing bias head-on,” Dr. Rogers said. “We’re in the process of recruiting the remaining members.”
Dr. Rogers explained that the co-chairs will meet with students to hear their suggestions and perspectives. They’ll also meet with experts and organizations fighting bias and intolerance.
“They’ll provide forums for the public to share its thoughts and concerns, recommendations and expertise,” Dr. Rogers said, providing the task force’s email address, antibias@syoschools.org.
Dr. Rogers then shared some personal reflections.
“At the last several board meetings, I’ve observed a community that is angry about acts that upset the harmony that we’ve tried for so many years to achieve,” Dr. Rogers said. “I’ve observed people that are understandably wondering whether those acts represent a risk to themselves and especially their children. I’ve seen people wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, wanting to have their concerns validated and prioritized and I’ve seen people expressing frustration in the hopes that those of us are responsible for their children take those concerns seriously and wondering if we do. I assure everyone, we do.”
Dr. Rogers then stated that everything that is reported gets investigated.
At the Nov. 6 meeting, Board of Education President Carol Cheng made a statement regarding incidents that had occurred at H.B. Thompson Middle School and Syosset High School.
“We confronted these incidents with zero tolerance, emphasizing consequences and education,” Cheng said. “Those who have faced bias and acts of hate in their lifetimes experience profound pain. This pain is often inherited from the experiences of our ancestors and must not be disregarded, minimized, or neglected.”
Cheng then stated that bias incidents reinforce the importance of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce established by the Board of Education.
“I would hope that every member of our community was offended and dismayed by the events of last week,” Dr. Rogers said at the Nov. 6 meeting. “I know I was devastated not only by the actions but by knowing the tremendous pain and sense of insecurity I knew those actions would cause in our community and in particular, our Jewish families.”
Dr. Rogers said there would be punitive actions toward the students involved and education for the community. He added that under federal law, he can not discuss individual students, including discipline towards them, but he could describe the process involved when any serious conduct is alleged.
“During the investigatory phase, school officials inform law enforcement whenever student conduct potentially constitutes a crime,” Dr. Rogers said. “From there, it’s up to law enforcement to decide if the actions are indeed criminal and how they wish to proceed through their legal process. When actions rise to this level, the district notifies the public to the extent allowed by law.”
School discipline, Dr. Rogers explained, also follows a legal process. Once the school’s investigation determines if the district’s code of conduct was violated, a formal hearing is held where both the student and the district are represented by counsel and a trained hearing officer presides. A court stenographer takes a transcript of the proceedings and witnesses are potentially called. The district’s attorney will present a disposition to the family of the suspended student, and the parent can agree to or reject the proposed terms. If rejected, the matter proceeds to testimony and the hearing. If guilt is found, the hearing officer recommends imposing an appropriate sanction.
“The school district does not take our responsibility lightly, but last week’s events proved our efforts are inadequate,” Dr. Rogers said. “In the short term, our goal will be to reinforce explicitly and specifically what constitutes forbidden conduct and what consequences will follow, including the potential for consequences from law enforcement. No middle school or high school student will have the excuse of ignorance or naiveté.”

An Outraged Community
In the past couple of months since the Oct. 7 attack in Israel by Hamas and the ensuing onslaught of retaliation by Israel in Gaza, parents and community members have been expressing concerns at Board of Education meetings about a rise in bias at Syosset’s schools.
The meeting on Nov. 7 went on for about five hours, as parents and community members took turns at the podium to share their thoughts and dissatisfaction about recent events and the district’s actions before and after. In the meetings since, parents and community members continued to express their concerns about antisemitism and Islamophobia.
During the Nov. 20 meeting, parents and community members commented on how bias towards Muslim students has been overlooked for years, with some community members and parents stating that either themselves or their children have been targeted on school grounds.
During the Dec. 4 meeting, the Board of Education had to take a five-minute recess because outrage ensued among the attendees after a community member said in part, that “antisemitism and Islamophobia are rooted in Zionism.” During the recess, one man shoved another, and security had to break up what was almost a physical altercation.
Rabbi Shalhevet, standing next to fellow members of the Anti-Bias Task Force, spoke directly to the crowd afterward.
“What we are going to do in that task force is talk to each other,” Rabbi Shalhevet said. “We are not going to yell at each other and we are not, at the beginning, I beg of you, going to talk about anything outside of Syosset.”
The meeting went on for about two-and-a-half hours as parents and community members spoke, with one student saying she was called a terrorist and Hamas for spreading awareness on her social media about the war’s impact on Palestinians.
“The way this meeting started out, it’s really nothing that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Dr. Syed, a co-chair of the Anti-Bias Taskforce said. “What I was really feeling, what I think many of us in the room were feeling, was just a sadness of what was actually unfolding in front of our eyes and how we are all so much better than… Our kids are showing us by leading by example how much we are better than that and how we can not let our emotions get the better of us… We have built this beautiful community together.”

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