Members of the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP confronted Riverhead school district officials at the Board of Education’s special meeting Tuesday evening about the district’s handling of the Sept. 9 racial incident at a Riverhead Blue Waves football game.
Members of the civil rights organization criticized the school district’s policies and said the incidents could have been avoided if its schools had implemented its diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, plan.
“The recent racial incident that occurred on September 9, 2023 in the Riverhead School District is unacceptable and egregious,” NAACP Eastern Long Island Branch President Lawrence Street said, reading a letter aloud to the board and superintendent. “This despicable incident has sparked outrage in the community. Accountability and justice hang in the balance. The district has not met their obligation for diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and practices.”
Street and the NAACP board accuse the district in the letter of replacing the town’s DEI plan with a five-year plan while neglecting DEI principles and dissolving the task force that wrote the DEI plan.
“There was a point in time that Riverhead School District valued community input and with a DEI Task Force, yet, it seems that is no longer the case,” Street said. “This type of behavior will not be tolerated and if the district does not have anything in place for such acts, we will take steps to review their board and their ethnic policies,” he said.
“The parents of the children responsible for this behavior also must be held accountable for their actions. Hatred begins at home; it is a learned behavior,” Street said. “We are requesting a sit-down with the audience of the Riverhead school board and superintendent and other concerned citizens to try and rectify this behavior assuring that this does not happen again with an expeditious reply.”
Tornatore, addressing the Sept. 9 event, said “the 18-year-old person who was the instigator of the entire event, has been banned from the district. The police have been notified and the police have been involved in an ongoing investigation with that person.”
“The two students who were involved have faced consequences. I cannot legally share with the community about those consequences, but there was swift action that was taken,” Tornatore said.
“This is not something that I take lightly,” he said.
“And I will share with you that our DEI plan is on the website,” Tornatore said. “Our next superintendent’s conference day, the entire day for Nov. 7, is strictly on DEI.”
The Riverhead school district DEI plan, which was adopted in June 2022 and is called the “Equity in Education Plan,” includes goals to implement four guiding principles. Year one goals of the plan involved creating student to student mentor programs and an “inter-racial council;” and engaging parents through surveys about the needs and cultures of students.
Street, a teacher who previously worked in the Riverhead school district, said he has in the past made complaints against teachers for racial remarks. He questioned how incidents are continuing if the DEI plan is being implemented.
“I’m wondering, how effective are you guys working with your DEI plan?” Street asked.
“We’re doing everything that we can,” Tornatore replied. “Unfortunately some people say things that are ignorant, that are stupid, and some people say things that are hurtful,” he said.
“Anytime we’ve been involved with a situation where I have the power to be able to ban somebody because of that behavior or suspend them, I’ve been doing that,” he said. “But I also do not have any jurisdiction over those parents or how they are behaving off of school grounds.”
Street questioned the board and superintendent as to why the district’s Diversity and Cross-Cultural Task Force, which he was a member of and helped make the plan, was dissolved after the DEI plan was complete.
Palmer said the task force might have stopped meeting after the administrator who was leading the meetings, Christine Tona, left the school district.
“It should not have been dissolved,” Palmer said. “And we’ll make sure that it continues.”
Tornatore said the behavior of some of the students in the district and their parents could be due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s been behaviors that have been, across the country, shocking and how violent students have been, how violent adults have been, how violent students have been, across the country,” he said.
Keisha Washington-Dean, the Eastern Long Island NAACP’s secretary, said that two years later, the pandemic is not an excuse.
Tornatore said he was not trying to make excuses, but that the behavior of students is still affected by the pandemic.
Street and Tornatore said they would arrange a time to meet and discuss bias incidents in the school district soon.
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