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Shouting at public comments brings recess at Smithtown schools meeting

School board president Matthew Gribbin speaks during a

School board president Matthew Gribbin speaks during a meeting of the Smithtown Board of Education on June 8, 2021. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Smithtown school leaders sent Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting into a 10-minute recess because of shouting from the audience during a public participation portion dominated by talk of critical race theory and mask and vaccine skepticism.

It was the second meeting in a row they resorted to the calming tactic. This time, board president Matthew Gribbin asked for a break about 22 minutes into the public comment portion of the meeting after a man read at length from what appeared to be a copy of "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction," a primer on an academic body of thought originating in 1970s legal scholarship that district officials repeatedly have said they are not teaching in any of their schools.

Earlier, a parent named Andrew Manello told the board: "There are no victims and there are no oppressors in our society. … Diversity, equity and inclusion is racist and you know it," referring to work district officials say they have been doing for years on race and other topics.

The district’s 8,398 students are 80% white, 10% Hispanic or Latino, 6% Asian, 2% multiracial and 1% Black, according to state data from 2019-20. Some parents have said they believe the district's diversity work shames white children and promotes anti-police beliefs, which school leaders say is false.

Smithtown’s meetings typically begin with an hour or more of committee reports and presentations from teachers and administrators, during which the mood is mostly calm. The meeting Tuesday began with presentations on a recently activated carport solar array and an educational partnership with the Town of Smithtown.

District leaders also said they met with the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association and planned to meet with that union and Suffolk police officers about pursuing learning partnerships with the police. Before the May board of education elections, PBA leaders appeared on Fox News and posted on social media about "anti-police rhetoric" in schools.

Disruptions during the public comment portion at board meetings have become common, despite pleas and admonitions from district leaders. Superintendent Mark Secaur said in an email Wednesday that district leaders "will continue to evaluate its policy and practices regarding our Board of Education meetings in an effort to provide for public participation in a civil manner."

The meeting followed the release of a June 21 letter to district parents and staff, signed by Secaur and board members, that some residents said was insulting. "The polarization we have seen in American politics has found its way to school communities throughout the country," it read in part. "Having different views on issues is fine. Expressing those views in a disrespectful manner and refusing to engage in actual dialogue to better understand one another is not."

The letter laid out prohibited behaviors, including shouting, cursing, interrupting and calling out when not called upon. It did not mention any specific incidents, but Gribbin, addressing the crowd, said the "low point" of the district's June 8 meeting had been treatment of a middle school student who spoke publicly in defense of his teachers. That child "was jeered and cursed at and taunted," Gribbin said.

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