November 14, 2013 at 11:16 am

Against All Reason

Some of you have been following my posts about the recent lawsuit brought against my town, Pine Bush, NY. The suit alleges rampant discrimination and bullying unchecked by an administration who refused to help. The incidents date back to 2008 (and in fact the area has a history of discrimination that dates back much further), and while the lawsuit was filed last year, the online firestorm began as a result of a New York Times article about the issue.

My post outlining our experiences with Anti-Semitism in Pine Bush and my horror at the way many of my fellow townspeople have handled these allegations can be found here. I won’t repeat it, but I do want to update everyone who is following the issue.

As of now both the Governor’s office and the US Attorney’s office have launched civil rights investigations into the claims. At issue in the lawsuit isn’t just whether the kids were bullied, but whether teachers and administrators in the district looked the other way when the complaints were brought to them. While I don’t have access to the 3,500 pages of sworn testimony to this effect, I have had experiences with administrators in the district, almost all of whom always made it clear they weren’t interested in feedback from parents on anything. The one time my daughter witnessed an Anti-Semitic incident perpetrated by a TEACHER, the middle school principal simply told her he would “take care of it” and the teacher remained in class.

I’ve learned a lot of interesting things about the district through all of this, chief of which is the fact that the district didn’t even mention bullying in its Code of Conduct until 2012. In addition, the penalties for smoking and leaving campus (suspension) were more severe than those for bullying (verbal conference) and there was no necessary distinction for bullying related to racism of religion. In fact, should a child be counseled about discriminatory bullying, it was not even necessary to note in the report that the bullying had been of a discriminatory nature.

A couple of nights ago my children and I attended a Board of Education meeting in which the Code of Conduct was being amended, and now a New York senator is making a motion to create uniform disciplinary action for bullying incidents in schools throughout the state. So for all of you claiming lawsuits don’t solve anything; sometimes they force people to take action where there wasn’t any before.

Sadly I wasn’t surprised by the overall tone of the Board meeting, which seemed to focus on residents patting the Board on the back and telling them to “stay strong” and on railing against the New York Times, both for “making the town look bad” and for the supposed “suspicious timing” as it relates to a proposed Hasidic development one town over. Of course, other than the alleged “suspicious timing”, there is no evidence and no rational explanation for how these two events are connected, but that doesn’t stop residents from making it the focal point of their conversation.

Several people spoke to this effect during the meeting, all to thunderous applause. But when an elderly gentleman spoke eloquently about hate symbols, the harm they do to children and communities, and the need to have them immediately removed (one of the allegations in the lawsuit is that swastikas and KKK symbols were allowed to remain on school property for months, sometimes years), the only people applauding were my little family and two or three others (there were approximately 200 attendees). The silence was positively deafening.

When I spoke about the fact that the continued denial in the community will not help heal it, that by denying this kind of discrimination exists despite 3,500 pages of testimony we are also calling these children and their families liars, that whether we want to admit it or not, there are FAMILIES WHO FEEL UNWELCOME HERE BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE AND/OR RELIGION, I received the same response.

When two speakers spoke about corruption on the school board (as it relates to the Hasidic housing development which may impact taxes here), they, too, received little response.

And I have to admit to being confused.

What are we NOT applauding? The removal of swastikas? Compassion for bullied children in the district? Consequences for corruption on the school board?

The town has been vocal about its disappointment that “they are making us look bad.” Who is this mythical “they?”

Well, I have bad news for you, Pine Bush; it’s YOU. You who deny this has happened. You who don’t hold accountable the people entrusted with the safety of our children who have NOT kept them safe. You who turn a blind eye to evidence in favor of denial. You who chose to hold a “Unity Rally” to support “the town” instead of putting your arms around the children and families who have been victimized here. You who tweet and FB post, putting your ignorance on display, as with the tweet featured in the Village Voice article in which an area teen tweeted; “Ask that reporter chick if she honestly ever drew a swastika in her life. Everyone’s done it. Kids make mistakes. This isn’t a hate crime.”

Really? Everyone’s done it? Um, no. I’ve never drawn a swastika in my life, neither have my children. All through my school years, I never heard a Jewish slur at school, never saw a swastika on any building or school property, and this was in California (and when I lived in Utah) in the 1980s when we were supposedly less enlightened.

One of the saddest moments I’ve had in all of this was talking to one of the children who has been the subject of this discrimination and bullying. She was recounting how an adult told her, “This is horrendous. I’ve lived in the city my whole life and never, ever experienced a single discriminatory incident because I am Jewish.”

And the child, incredulous, said, “This has never happened to you?”

Like so many people in Pine Bush would have you believe, she assumed this happened everywhere, that if you are Jewish, you must resign yourself to being bullied and harassed.

This argument is just another way for residents to dodge responsibility. This DOES NOT happen everywhere. And while it may still happen somewhere, so does genocide. So do suicide bombings. So does sex trafficking. Do we want that stuff here? Would we stand idly by and let those things happen with fighting back? Get real.

Lastly, I’m saddened by the local paper’s (Times Herald Record) account of the meeting of the Board of Ed. After everything I saw there, the headline we got was, “Pine Bush denies Anti-Semitic Claims.”

No, we don’t. Not all of us anyway. And seriously? No mention of the corruption charges lobbed at board members? No mention of the people who stood up to admit that discrimination and bullying HAS happened here and that we need to put the focus on healing the community and showing compassion for the victims instead of worrying about “the town”? And certainly no mention of the lukewarm response to those messages in the face of thunderous applause for anyone stroking the boards ego and helping them “lick their wounds” (overheard being said by a member of the “Concerned Citizens of Pine Bush”).

In response. I’ve written the following letter to the Times Herald Record;

Your coverage of the Pine Bush School Board meeting held on November 12th seems to be missing something. While a majority of the attendees continued to deny anti-Semitism exists in the community, others (including myself) admitted to seeing it. I brought up a specific incident in which my middle school age child, engaged in a debate with her class about the relevance of Jewish holidays to the district, was told “Stupid Jews” by the teacher. She brought the complaint to the principal, who said he would take care of it, only to find the same teacher manning the Study Hall desk the next day. None of this was mentioned in your article.

Others at the meeting leveled corruption complaints against the school board, but that didn’t make it into your article either. Instead we got the headline “Pine Bush Rejects Anti-Semitic Claims.” Which is precisely the problem. Until the district opens its eyes to the very obvious discrimination that exists here, nothing will change and Pine Bush will only continue looking like what it is; a town in deep, deep denial. By giving credence to that claim, you have done no service to our town.

Like the Jewish families who allege a conspiracy of silence in the district, those of us who stand with them against discrimination of any kind are speaking out. And as with those families, the problem is the same. No one’s listening.

I honestly don’t know what else to say. It feels like my kids and I are rowing a boat upstream, and I’m unspeakably disappointed that the district and its teachers, parents, and students chose not to embrace the victims of these horrific actions, but to defend a district and its policies when it is becoming more and more obvious that they need to answer for what has happened here.

To those of you who insist on connecting the Hasidic development in Bloominburg to the discrimination lawsuit in Pine Bush; Just stop. Without evidence, you look both crazy and ignorant. Furthermore, by using this incident to draw attention to YOUR problem, you take it away from the victims who have been harassed and bullied FOR YEARS and deserve some kind of accountability. By stating this is all some kind of conspiracy (without proof, but who needs proof in the face of wild allegations!), you do a disservice to both causes.

To the teenagers I know and love in Pine Bush; You’re better than this. Please stay focused on those among you who feel unwelcome. Show some compassion for their suffering. Your energy is better spent solving this problem than denying it exists.

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6 thoughts on “Against All Reason

  1. Leslie Green says:

    Bravo Michelle! Another truly cogent assessment of the situation both in Pine Bush and of the TRH truly pathetic coverage which seems to be aimed at sensationalizing the entire matter. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they wrote an editorial on the issue similar to what you wrote on your blog today? Sadly my experience with the THR is that this is unlikely to happen.
    I hope they have the decency & courage to publish you letter in its entirety.
    Good luck on the release of your new book!

    1. MichelleZink says:

      Thank you, Leslie. Every time something happens pertaining to the case, I open up the local paper and wonder if we’re talking about the same issue. It’s like they’re in another dimension, seeing something completely different from what the rest of us are seeing. Glad I’m not alone (or crazy!).
      😉

      I appreciate your comment and your good wishes for my book!

  2. Samantha Walters says:

    Thank you very much for standing up for these victims. It means a lot to me because I was severely bullied and it caused me so much pain. I’m glad your family knows that bullying isn’t acceptable and that there should be consequences. It’s so sad that a lot of people care more about the towns reputation than the pain the victims are going through :-/.

    1. MichelleZink says:

      I’m so sorry you suffered, Samantha. It is my hope that this incident will make the district better, both by strengthening bullying and discrimination policy and by shining a light on how it feels to be hurt by ones peers. I truly believe that we are moving toward a more enlightened phase of humanity. There is evidence of it everywhere. But it happens one person, one voice, at a time. It makes me happy and proud to know there are young people like you will carry this torch into the future.
      <3

  3. Jen says:

    It shocks me and disappoints me that you have to fight against this. What era do we live in and who cares about what “they” think, a boards motive should always be for protecting the children

    1. MichelleZink says:

      Thanks, Jen. It’s been an upsetting reality check.
      🙁

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