The exterior of Roosevelt Middle School is shown Feb. 23,...

The exterior of Roosevelt Middle School is shown Feb. 23, 2016. Three teachers have been placed on paid administrative leave at the school. Credit: Barry Sloan

Three Roosevelt Middle School teachers have been placed on paid administrative leave while district officials investigate an incident in which images of a pair of nooses were displayed in a photographic collage in a classroom, officials said Monday.

“The Board of Education has zero tolerance for the display of racially offensive images,” said a statement posted on the Roosevelt school district’s website. "District administration is unable to comment further, as this is a personnel matter."

District officials were alerted to the collage Thursday, the statement said.

The collage also shows pictures of middle school teachers and students, as well as images of sticker hearts, an apple, a smiley face and phrases such as "Hey Beautiful." The photos of two nooses, labeled as “back to school necklaces,” are near the bottom of the display, surrounded by the words “Ha” and “#YES.”

It was not clear who created the collage, how or when it came to be in the classroom, or whether students had seen it during school hours.

The collage had been in one of the classrooms, and a photo of it was shared on social media, school board president Alfred T. Taylor said in an interview Monday.

The school board immediately launched an investigation and took “appropriate action,” according to the district's statement. The statement was sent to parents and posted on the website over the weekend. The board is expected to discuss the matter at a meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the high school auditorium.

State Education Department officials said they will conduct a review of the district’s policies and protocols to ensure compliance with the Dignity for All Students Act, the state’s anti-bullying legislation. "We take all allegations of misconduct against educators extremely seriously," department officials said in an emailed statement. 

Arthur Mackey Jr., senior pastor at Mount Sinai Baptist Church Cathedral in Roosevelt, told Newsday a teacher made him aware of the collage over the weekend. Mackey alerted the district, posted it on social media and shared it via text message, fax and email to community members and reporters.

Three teachers since have been “reassigned to home” with pay, pending the investigation, Taylor said. The race of the teachers was not available.

“The Board of Education is not sleeping on this issue. We’ve taken it seriously and we want the community to feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and their opinions on the situation," Taylor said. "We are doing our due diligence to make sure everything is done thoroughly and fairly.”

The image, shared widely on social media and by various news outlets, sparked concern within the Roosevelt community, with some calling it a hate crime. 

Mackey said he was "disturbed" when he received photos of the collage from a teacher of color who works at the middle school and wished to remain anonymous.

“The only responsible thing to do was to alert the public, to cry loud and to spare not,” said Mackey, who also serves as chaplain of the Roosevelt Chamber of Commerce.

Mackey said that, given the racial makeup of the district, having the images in the school building “clearly is an act of racism and racial hatred.”

About 50 percent of the 3,200-plus students in the Roosevelt district are Latino, and about 49 percent are African-American, according to state Education Department data for the 2017-18 school year. The middle school, which serves grades seven and eight, has more than 450 students — 55 percent are Latino and nearly 45 percent are African-American, according to the state data. 

The image of the noose has historically symbolized racial violence perpetrated against African-Americans.

The photos of the nooses in the collage were from an internet meme with the phrase "back to school necklaces," which carries a connotation of suicide.

The website Urban Dictionary, which records the meanings of slang phrases, defines “back to school necklaces” as another word for a noose, “due to the utter despair you feel when school starts back up again.”

Superintendent Marnie Hazelton, in a statement, addressed that aspect of the collage.

“Any content that makes light of suicide and mental illness, whether or not it is intended to be a joke, is both absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable,” Hazelton's statement said.

Taylor said he did not know the concept behind the collage, but said teachers and district staff must be mindful of their actions.

“Speaking as a black man, I can tell you that any sort of depiction of a noose can be considered offensive to many,” he said, equating it to a swastika for those who are Jewish.

Mackey said it was unacceptable to have such images in a school setting. “This is no joke,” he said. “It’s racial hatred and insensitive and it cannot be tolerated any way you cut it.”

After the investigation is done, Mackey called on administrators to fire anyone who was involved.  “A noose cannot be taken lightly," he said.

In 2002, the Roosevelt system was taken over by the state, the first and only time that has occurred in New York. The action resulted in boosts in students’ academic performance and infrastructure improvements, but was expensive, and an 11-year commitment. The district was removed from the state’s list of struggling schools in 2016 after demonstrating improvements.

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