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Schools Need Better Procedures to Handle Allegations

To the Editor: 

On May 1st, Pearl River High School and Sleepy Hollow High School played each other in boys’ varsity lacrosse. What happened that day highlights that schools need better procedures for handling allegations of racism.

During the game, three Sleepy Hollow players reported racial slurs by Pearl River players. The Sleepy Hollow players told their teammates (one of whom is my son) and coaching staff. Sleepy Hollow refused to shake hands with Pearl River at the end of the game. The Tarrytown district asked Pearl River to follow up.

It took nearly two months for Pearl River to fully respond — and that response was disturbing. First, Pearl River refused to credit the allegations — basically because Tarrytown hadn’t produced a witness, other than the alleged victims themselves, who could confirm hearing the slurs. Second, Pearl River ducked public discussion. Tarrytown’s superintendent sent a tough letter, calling Pearl River’s response “an insult to the veracity of our students.” The superintendent asked that his letter be read into the public record of the Pearl River school board — but Pearl River refused.

I don’t claim to know exactly what happened on the field on May 1. But it seems clear that Pearl River’s ostrich-like approach to the allegations can’t be the right model. This was treated as an investigation under the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA. Here are some suggestions for future DASA cases:

• Complaining students shouldn’t be required to have a corroborating “earwitness,” as Pearl River seemed to think. If that were the test, then racial incidents could rarely be confirmed – especially in sports where players meet one on one. A better test is the totality of the circumstances – that is, simply look at all the facts and do your best to figure out which version of events is most credible. Here, for example, it seems important that not one but three players all complained, they did so right away, and their stories were credited by the leadership of the Tarrytown district — all factors that Pearl River seems to have disregarded.

• A school district should have to publicly and promptly acknowledge when another district makes a serious complaint of racial misconduct. Transparency promotes fair and full investigations.

• The aggrieved district also should be allowed to appeal to a neutral investigator and decision-maker.

The lacrosse season is over, and I for one wouldn’t favor putting either Sleepy Hollow or Pearl River through further investigation. So let’s not reopen the books on this particular episode, but let’s learn from it — and, specifically, let’s reject the Pearl River approach of “deny, delay and don’t discuss.” Before the next case comes along — and, sad to say, it undoubtedly will —Albany should write a better rulebook.

Jeremy Feigelson

Tarrytown

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