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State officials to educators: ‘Students must feel safe’

Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington

Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington on April 16, 2013. Credit: Tara Conry

State education and law enforcement officials Friday urged local school districts to protect students from harassment after the discovery of several swastikas inside high schools in Port Washington and Northport, among other postelection confrontations in the schools.

In a joint letter to school districts, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia offered their assistance in implementing the guidelines of New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, designed to shield students from bullying and intimidation.

They also encouraged school leaders to host gatherings to help prevent hate-based words and actions.

“Students must feel safe in the classroom to be able to learn. As state and educational leaders, it is our responsibility to foster an open dialogue with students and employees about discrimination, harassment and intimidation and send a strong message that these types of behaviors will not be tolerated in our schools,” Elia said in a statement.

The missive comes as state and local officials report an uptick in the number of hate-related incidents and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on public officials to denounce them.

A swastika was discovered on the wall of a boys bathroom at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington this week, and three students found multiple swastikas drawn in the theater storage room at Northport High School. Both incidents were brought to the attention of police, officials in those districts said.

A Friday meeting of the superintendents of schools in the Town of Brookhaven included discussion of several isolated student confrontations in the schools on Nov. 9 and 10, said Charles Russo, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

“Those incidents were verbal and not physical. Educators dealt with them aggressively so they would not escalate. . . . I think it is reasonable to say the incidents were tied to the election,” Russo said Friday afternoon. “Classroom teachers must continue to be hypersensitive about what their students are saying to each other.”

In Port Washington, a Schreiber student found the swastika Thursday morning and access to the bathroom was immediately closed as maintenance workers “quickly cleaned the wall,” Superintendent Kathleen Mooney said on the district’s website.

Mooney called the act unacceptable and said it “does not represent who we are as a school district or a community.” She said the district is investigating and will take appropriate disciplinary action.

In Northport, school officials earlier in the week were seeking ways to promote inclusive school communities, the district letter said.

Superintendent Robert Banzer, in a districtwide letter, called the actions “reprehensible.”

“As a school community, we will continue to teach tolerance to our students and reinforce the importance of acceptance of all students,” he said.


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