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State Police Find No Crime in Harassment Investigation Involving Sleepy Hollow Teacher

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June 11, 2021

By Brianna Staudt–

New York State Police confirmed Thursday they opened, and then closed, an aggravated harassment investigation into a social media post calling for a rally to “terminate” Sleepy Hollow Middle School English Teacher Peter Kennedy for his comments in class about deceased veteran Chris Kyle, whom many know from the 2014 movie American Sniper or the best-selling book of the same name.

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Trooper A. J. Hicks said the investigation stemmed from a tip received on Tuesday, June 8. Police determined, after interviewing community members and the school district, that “terminate” in the social media post referred to seeking the end of the teacher’s employment, not a violent act. No charges were filed.

Information, opinions and rhetoric about Kennedy’s lesson started circulating around the school district community and surrounding area last week. Board of Education President John Paine said Kennedy’s eighth grade English class discussed Kyle’s reliability as a narrator while studying the theme of “ambiguity.” Paine said the book American Sniper is not part of the curriculum, but many students read it.

Kyle was a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL who was honorably discharged. He was widely recognized for his service nationally after the book and movie were released. Some claims he made about his career and later civilian life have been called into question or cannot be verified, including a claim he shot 30 or so armed looters from the roof of the Superdome with a friend after Hurricane Katrina.

At least two posts circulated around Facebook calling for an in-person rally at the Sleepy Hollow High School auditorium last night at 7:00 p.m. The Board of Education planned to meet in-person at that time for the first time this school year to celebrate district retirees and tenure candidates with a limited number of their guests. The general public was not invited to attend the gathering. A virtual Board of Education meeting followed at 8:00 p.m. As of 3:00 p.m. yesterday, the state police’s investigation was still open.

There appeared to be multiple goals of the rally, including to show support for Kyle and veterans, to protest Kennedy’s lesson itself, to call for Kennedy’s “termination,” and to generally protest “liberal” teaching. At least one post called specifically for individuals in the military and veterans to attend.

Meanwhile, local civil rights activists also took to social media and private channels to organize an in-person counterprotest and public show of support at the Board of Education meeting for Kennedy.

Organizers called off the in-person rally against Kennedy and the lesson. The counterprotest never happened, either. Sixty-nine people attended the Board of Education Zoom meeting, including the school trustees. The only public comment was a question about accessibility of board policies on the district website. For context, attendance was about three times higher earlier in the school year for meetings regarding school reopening. Most of the attendees appeared to be dialing in to show support for Kennedy and the lesson, should it be needed.

Paine opened the board meeting by reading a prepared statement from the board about Kennedy’s lesson. He noted the district tradition of working with local war hero Chick Galella to display American flags for Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day in the front lawn of the high school and middle school campus. He then defended the lesson and noted teaching complex thinking benefits students as they move on to higher education and the workplace.

An area parent, who did not wish to be identified, said she is “very against indoctrinating our children.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines indoctrination as “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.”

“Teachers have no right telling our kids that police are horrible people and military is fake,” she said. Her understanding from others (as yet uncorroborated by The Hudson Independent) is that the teacher said Kyle was “phony” and not a hero, and that veterans are frauds and not heroes.

A parent of a student in Kennedy’s class, who  identifies herself as the daughter of a veteran, said she didn’t see anything “anti-military” in the lesson as described by her child. “It’s possible to be a war hero and make mistakes in civilian life, as Kyle did. I expect teachers to help our children become nuanced and critical in their thinking rather than reactionary, and this was a good case to consider.”

Kennedy is a tenured teacher, meaning he can only be fired due to “just cause” as defined by state law. He has taught at Sleepy Hollow Middle School for over a decade.

“Education that involves analytical thinking, and the ability to look at nuance and detail and consider variety and diversity, is hugely important to the development of a healthier society over time,” said Robert Wingate of the River Towns Civil Rights Forum.

Some local civil rights activists questioned how much of the opposition to the lesson was coming from the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow community itself versus outside actors.

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