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School Confronts Racist Statements on Social Media

Fri, 06/05/2020 - 11:26
East Hampton High School
David E. Rattray

This story has been updated since it was first published.

Social media posts by East Hampton High School students with racist content and offensive language are under investigation by school officials, and have sparked conversations about racism in the educational landscape here.

"Bigotry and racism has reared its ugly head through social media this week at our school and in our community," Adam Fine, the East Hampton High School principal, said in a statement on Thursday. "A large number of students and parents have reached out to report a variety of disgusting posts. I said earlier this week we will not stand by and do nothing when major disruptions to the educational process arise."

He said he could not share the outcome of any investigations because it was against student-privacy laws.

"I need to be very clear again that these incidents are taken very seriously. . . . But I ask you not to believe everything you read on social media!" Mr. Fine wrote. "Most of the posts are very far from the actual truth."

East Hampton Town police have said that the messages and videos were noncriminal and beyond their jurisdiction because they would be protected by the First Amendment.

Among the social media posts seen by The Star was a video in which a local teen used a racial slur and expletives to describe people who were "smashing cop cars for no . . . reason, over one . . . cop killing someone."

"Oh well. I am so sick and tired of hearing about all of it," he said.

A post labeled "george floyd challenge" — supposedly shared by an East Hampton student, which appeared to be attached to an email purportedly sent by Mr. Fine — has been deemed fake. However, The Star has viewed several posts that include racist statements and imagery.

Detective Sgt. Daniel Toia of the East Hampton Town police said that after police reviewed the complaints, they were referred back to the school district.

"They're noncriminal in nature because of free speech," he said. "The rhetoric during these times and the incendiary language are not helping the situation. Unkind words are throwing fuel to the fire of the hateful, disturbing times we are in."

The social media posts were condemned by many local students who saw them firsthand, including Valeria Vargas, an East Hampton sophomore. In an email to The Star, she said she feels the school administration has an "inability to address racism in an effective manner" and said students are lacking in education about social issues.

"Multiple instances of racism have been reported to administration; these reports have been addressed with light or nonexistent disciplinary actions," Valeria said. "Not addressing these reports desensitizes the issue of racism and how to properly address it. I hope that in the future, students will be held accountable for their actions and face proper repercussions, as well as East Hampton High School taking reports of racism more seriously."

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for freedom of speech, religion, and the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government. It does not protect speech that poses a "clear and present danger" to the public, but an individual cannot be prosecuted for sharing statements that others disagree with.

An incident of a similar nature involved a Springs School student, according to Debra Winter, the district superintendent. In a message posted on the school website, she said, "We must continue to promote an open dialogue and cultivate meaningful conversations with our children."

"I was saddened to learn that one of our students published a highly inappropriate message on social media," Ms. Winter wrote. "There is zero tolerance for any type of bias, hate, or racism in Springs School and we take this inappropriate behavior extremely seriously. District administrators are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation and have been in contact with the East Hampton Police Department. We will continue to work with them through any investigation."

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests and demonstrations that followed prompted some other school administrators to address the issues. Jeff Nichols, superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District, released a statement on Friday acknowledging the "continuing presence of racial inequalities and violence" in certain parts of society.

The district's mission statement "ends with 'empower students to become responsible and respectful members of a global society,' " Mr. Nichols said. "In keeping with this goal, we stand in solidarity with the black community as they experience pain, anguish, and fear, and we commit to working with them to address the challenges, fight racism and bigotry, and ensure that our community is a welcoming, inclusive place for everyone."

The Sag Harbor School District has a formal committee dedicated to diversity education and inclusive practices and policies. The Springs School District has a program called Diversity Ambassadors in which students serve as peer-to-peer educators, and help promote understanding in the community, as well.

"We start in the fifth grade, and we think we have to go down to the lower grades," Ms. Winter said by phone on Tuesday. "We're convinced that the method has to be one where the parents, faculty, and community members are in the room at the same time."

The Southampton School District has taken part in the Long Island Consortium for Equity in Education and has partnered with the National Indian Education Association for staff training.

"We are very proud of and embrace the diversity" in the Southampton School District, Nicholas Dyno, its superintendent, said in a statement. "At the very core of our district's mission is our commitment to providing our students with a meaningful education that reinforces the inclusion and acceptance of all students in a safe and supportive environment. . . . We will continue to evaluate our current practices and find ways to strengthen past efforts in order to further bolster our commitments today and into the future."

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