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This month has been a roller-coaster ride for Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force.

Earlier this month, the Town Board passed a resolution replacing the group’s previous leadership — who were outspoken against certain town policies — and other members, shrinking the group’s size from 15 to 11 people. Days later, the newly appointed chairperson resigned.  

Board members told us the group — intended to be “non-partisan” — will have more oversight by the Town Board moving forward, raising questions about the group’s independence and what influence the board will have on the task force’s programs and public statements. 

At the most recent task force meeting, the new task force leadership came face-to-face with its first apparent racial bias incident. Several young Black children were pushed down and called racial slurs and other derogatory terms by white teenagers on a playground near the football field during a Riverhead Blue Waves varsity football game, according to their family members.  

Writing about the incident upset us. Nobody should be subjected to bullying or harassment. Period. The fact that these teenagers appeared to be preying upon young children and harassing them based on their race is even worse. 

Then came the news last week that someone, likely a student, was drawing swastikas on desks at the high school. It concerns us that one or more of the young people in our community would draw a symbol of such immense hate and terror on classroom desks. The appearance of swastikas anywhere in our community, let alone scrawled on desks in a classroom,  cannot be tolerated.

These incidents should remind anyone who wasn’t already paying attention that hate is still alive in Riverhead. 

Incidents like these are what anti-bias task forces are created to address: both to respond to and help prevent. 

The group did well at its meeting Sept. 18, confronted by the family of the victims of the attack at the football field. The family members were angry and upset, yearning for accountability and action. And who could blame them? Task force members showed a lot of empathy and seemed to want to help and do what they can to make sure another incident doesn’t happen again. At the end of the meeting, the task force agreed to draft a letter to the school district about the incident and recommend training on bias and sensitivity. Only time will tell what that letter will accomplish, but it could be the start of something good. 

The new chairperson, Mark McLaughlin, has been available and willing to speak out candidly about both incidents with us, offering strong statements rightfully condemning the activity. For us, there is hope that McLaughlin and the rest of the task force are up to the task.

But still, we are concerned — and question how effective the task force will be in the long term. What worries us most is the Town Board’s intention to exercise more oversight of the task force, which should function independently of the Town Board.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force shake-up: Members removed, new leadership installed, Town Board to oversee programming going forward

To put it bluntly, we don’t have much faith that the Town Board shares the same values the Anti-Bias Task Force must possess to be effective. A commitment to social justice, the support and protection of minority interests, and an overall progressive view of criminal justice and police accountability, are all key to the goals of an anti-bias task force.

How much will the all-Republican RIverhead Town Board, in exercising increased oversight of the ABTF and its programs, require the group to toe the Republican Party line? The party as a whole has increased its rhetoric in opposition  to social justice initiatives. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has sought to diminish the teaching of racism and social justice movements in schools. While he was president, Donald Trump, who is likely to receive the Republican nomination to run for president again, tried to ban anti-racism training for federal contractors. Trump claimed these teachings were “divisive” and “un-American.” Those are just a few of many, many examples.

All of this isn’t far from the rhetoric Rep. Lee Zeldin used when he ran for governor last year — and the Town Board was behind him.

The Riverhead Town Board has done nothing to denounce those views. If anything, they’ve leaned into the inflammatory political rhetoric. They responded to the potential of asylum seekers coming to Riverhead from New York City not with empathy or concern, but with an executive order based on rumors and unverified information that amounted to political posturing. 

When members of the Anti-Bias Task Force warned that the executive order could fuel fear and hate of immigrants, Town Board members fanned the flames.

“Well, what we don’t know is we don’t know the backgrounds of the people coming through the border. We don’t know that,” Council Member Tim Hubbard, the Republican supervisor candidate said. “What we could have in that mix is medically contagious people, we could have criminals, we could have scientists…” 

If anything can divide people and stoke the fear and hate of a particular ethnic group — the opposite of the Anti-Bias Task Force’s goals — it was their attitude. 

And next came the punishment for those who spoke out. The leaders of the task force, Cindy Clifford and Michele Lynch, were kicked off without warning, Clifford says. Lisa Votino, a Wading River resident who was participating in the task force and was waiting for her membership to be made “official” by a Town Board resolution, was passed over when the board reorganized the task force and named new members on Sept. 6. Votino, who has been a volunteer at the southern border helping asylum-seekers, also spoke out against the migrant executive order. When the shake-up occurred, Votino was slated to give an educational presentation, about the asylum process, sponsored by the ABTF. The idea was to combat misinformation being spread by the Town Board. Votino’s program went on without the task force’s sponsorship because it was not “approved” by the Town Board.

Council Member Ken Rothwell said the task force shakeup was not politically motivated or connected to members’ views on the migrant executive order. But Rothwell, unprompted, brought up the political party affiliation of group members during an interview in August. It was clearly on his mind. 

We are rightfully worried that our Town Board — in asserting an oversight role over ABTF programs and communications, may neutralize the group and interfere with its mission. Council Member Ken Rothwell’s own comments to us regarding the Town Board’s oversight of the task force’s programs going forward validate our concern. Rothwell said he would support prohibiting programs that are “controversial” or “create anger.” These reasons are similar to the ones Republicans across the country have used to oppose teaching our youth about the impacts of systemic racism or conducting implicit bias training.

We hope the new Anti-Bias Task Force will not be stunted, but more aggressive, in its pursuit of educational programming going forward. Hopefully the incident at the football game and the swastikas drawn on high school’s desks will be enough to remind everyone how imperative it is to confront these issues directly in order to prevent hate in our community.

And we hope the Town Board is supportive of those goals. If the Town Board is really serious about improving the Anti-Bias Task Force, it literally needs to put its money where its mouth is.

Until now, the board has provided  the ABTF with a budget that’s next to nothing. It has even erected barriers to the ABTF spending its very limited budget to buy books requested by school librarians. The Town Board approval for the expenditure on a list of books submitted to the board in January is being held up while the town attorney completes a review to determine if the books are “appropriate,” according to an ABTF committee member who worked with school librarians on the project. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the shakeup of the Anti-Bias Task Force will seek to “remove the politics” from the group, but that idea gets to the core of what the Town Board misunderstands, or purposely ignores: The Anti-Bias Task Force is inherently “political” in the sense that it must deal with issues that are inherently political. And it must have the independence it needs to be effective and true to its mission — a mission that has nothing to do with spreading cheer, pretending that problems don’t exist, or falling in line with the positions of any political party.

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