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District can uphold values it proclaims

The Oyster Bay-East Norwich School Administration building on

The Oyster Bay-East Norwich School Administration building on Feb. 14, 2020 in Oyster Bay. Credit: Howard Schnapp

When I heard that Laura Seinfeld, the superintendent of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich school district, would be retiring at the end of the year, I reflected on some recent community history. I could not help but see the irony in a Newsday story in August about a district Zoom meeting that someone chose to "bomb."

"Regrettably, at one of [the forums], someone decided to take advantage of this and use it as an opportunity to post hateful content that was racist, sexist, and indecent," Seinfeld said in an email to Newsday.

She described the content as "hate speech," called it "reprehensible," and said it "[does] not represent the values of respect, kindness, and acceptance in our district, or in our community."

As reported earlier this year in Newsday and other outlets, the Oyster Bay-East Norwich school district embraced the antithesis of those principles. In defiance of guidelines issued by the New York State Education Department, the district put in place a draconian initiative requiring all parents and guardians in the district to re-register their children. While that might appear to be reasonable on its face, the initiative went far beyond anything that might be deemed judicious.

As originally set forth, parents/guardians were required to list those within the household attending school and those who did not attend school — an invasion of privacy, in my view. The district also stipulated that parents/guardians agree to unannounced visitations by school officials to verify the information that they provided to the district. Did they plan to play "gotcha" by walking around people’s homes to see who lived there? Really? In America?

In addition, those who provided false data would be subject to $20,000 fines. After numerous attempts by media representatives for clarification of the district’s new policies, Superintendent Seinfeld told Newsday that affidavits would be revised to only request the names of guardians and the names and dates of birth for children. She added that, after residents’ inquiries, the district decided to remove the word "required" from the affidavits as well as the $20,000 penalty and unannounced home visits.

When a News 12 Long Island reporter checked the district’s website the following day, he discovered that only the English version of the affidavit had been modified, while the Spanish version had not. Only the Spanish translation contained the $20,000 fine. Once again, district officials did not offer any explanation. The following day, the district apologized on the website for posting the unedited Spanish version and offered regrets for any "inconvenience." It seems like a bit of a stretch to describe the threat of a $20,000 fine to innocent citizens as an "inconvenience." Of course, the apology only appeared in English, not in Spanish. Did district officials find it ironic that they apologized to English-speaking residents for whom they posted the edited form and did not offer any regrets to the Spanish-speaking residents?

Perhaps district officials should apologize for their actions in February. In doing so, they will make a stronger statement about the values they profess to hold dear ... as opposed to the easy language of outrage about the "invasion" of the recent Zoom meeting.

Michael Cohen is a retired superintendent of the Brentwood school district.