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.


Anti-Semitism is Alive and Well in My Town


Recently the New York Times posted this article about an anti-semitism lawsuit in my town.

I moved to Small Town America from California twelve years ago. I wanted my children to be surrounded by nature, to feel the embrace of a small town, to grow up a little slower. Pine Bush, New York seemed the perfect spot. Idyllic and peaceful, the town was dotted with old farmhouses and barns, had one stop light (we have two now), and a volunteer fire department.

I was shocked when, on the way to a district PTA meeting, the elementary school principal informed me that Pine Bush had once been a hot spot for the KKK. Looking around at all the natural beauty, it was hard to believe, though I’m not sure why since one clearly has nothing to do with the other.

My first personal brush with racism came at a Little League game. I was talking to one of the mothers and she made reference to the fact that her son was teased, “You know, because of his last name.” When it became clear that I had no idea what she was talking about she repeated the name and lowered her voice, “Because it’s Hispanic.” I couldn’t have been more shocked. Coming from Southern California, where most classrooms are filled with equal parts Caucasian, African-American, Indian, Asian and Hispanic students, I just didn’t get it.

It wasn’t until my kids got older that I started hearing rumbles of anti-semitism. My children had friends who had coins thrown at them, were peppered with racial slurs, even beaten. One day in middle school, my daughter was sitting in study hall when the subject of an upcoming Jewish holiday came up. One of the kids complained, wondering why the district gave them a day off for a JEWISH holiday. My daughter spoke up, trying to explain that in the same way some holidays are important family times for us, Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are important to Jewish families. And while my daughter wasn’t surprised when the child in question didn’t get it, she was surprised to hear the teacher mutter, “Stupid Jews.”

My daughter is a girl who, as the youngest of four children with two older brothers, HATES to cry. If she fell down as a child and really hurt herself, she’d stand up, brush herself off with tears in her eyes, and say, “I’m okay, I’m okay.”

But she cried when she told me about the incident with her teacher. I don’t think she could understand how a grown-up, a TEACHER, could be so full of hate. So we talked about it and I offered to go to the principal but also suggested it might make her feel good to do it herself. I gave her the choice and she decided to speak to the principal herself. She was told he would “take care of it”, but the next day when she walked into class, the same teacher was manning the study hall desk. Uncomfortable with the situation, my daughter moved to the back of the room only to hear the teacher say, snidely and loud enough for everyone to hear, “I guess I’ve made X uncomfortable now.”

Just last week my son stood by while a student went on a hate-filled rant about how much he “hates Jews” — in full view and earshot of a teacher who said and did nothing.

So you see why I was unsurprised to hear that a lawsuit had been filed on behalf of multiple Jewish families in Pine Bush and even less surprised to hear the claims of innocence on the part of the district and its administrators. There is a culture of silence and solidarity in small towns, even when it is undeserved.

I like to think I’ve raised my children to be champions of right, whatever that may be in any given situation. I like to think I’ve taught them not to follow my ideals and opinions but to form ideals and opinions of their own. They have spoken up when the situation called for it, they’ve intervened in bullying when they’ve been witness to it, engaged in heated classroom debates where they were, quite literally, the only one speaking for the side of equality, fairness and acceptance.

But it can feel like an uphill battle, even for me. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be them, and I CAN’T imagine how difficult it must be for those who are made targets every day because of their race or religion.

What makes me the saddest in this whole situation is the number of people in Pine Bush denouncing the allegations as lies, calling the lawsuit a “money grab” (this one was used by the Superintendent of Schools). There are 3,500 pages of deposition supporting these claims, and yet very few in our community are even asking questions, even waiting to hear the evidence. Instead the same people who have suffered for years are suffering again. Like me, many of them believed that people just didn’t KNOW. Once everyone finds out, they’ll feel bad about it, right? They’ll want it to change.

Turns out the answer, largely, is no.

People want things to stay the same. The don’t want to challenge their view of the world — and they sure as hell don’t want their kids challenging it. So instead of asking questions, instead of using this as a teaching moment for our children, instead of saying, “I know how much you love this town and the people in it, so do I, but don’t you think we should wait and see the evidence before we take a side? Don’t you think a more measured response than blind denial would be to admit that anything is possible? And that if this has been happening, it’s horrible and wrong and needs to be addressed? Don’t you think the town we love will be BETTER if we find out the truth and address any problems that might exist?” Instead of saying all of that, many parents are saying, “All lies! This is a great town! Discrimination happens everywhere! African americans are discriminated in the district, too! It’s all about money!”

The arguments are illogical at best. All lies? How do you know? Were you there during every incident cited in the 3,500 pages of sworn testimony? This is a great town! Why yes. Yes, it is. But like all great things, there is always room for improvement. Discrimination happens everywhere? Irrelevant to the issue at hand. You’ve never seen it? Again irrelevant and also illogical. I’m assuming you don’t see most of the things that occur in the world, since it’s a very big place. That doesn’t mean they’re not happening out of your line of sight. African americans are discriminated against in the district, too? They definitely are. Let’s talk about that, too. It’s all about money? False. These allegations were brought to the district countless times and nothing was done to address them. In one email, the Superintendent told a parent that trying to change the prejudice of the community “might be a bit unrealistic.” Nothing was done. The parents had to do something to protect their children.

NOW things are getting done.

Do I think it’s some big conspiracy against jewish people in Pine Bush? I don’t. I think people get complacent and lazy in their jobs. I think it is difficult to call parents on the carpet for the behavior of their children when you volunteer side by side in the local fire department with said parents, when you cookout with them on weekends, when you are friends. I think it’s sometimes easier to look the other way, to pretend something isn’t a big deal when it is, in fact, a very big deal. To hope it will go away, solve itself. I think hearing the complaints of parents day in and day out gets old. I think after awhile, it ALL seems like no big deal.

But that’s no excuse. While we might not be able to change the prejudice taught at home, we CAN hold students to a certain standard of conduct at school. I think the answer is quite simple, and had it been instituted from the beginning, I don’t think we’d be here now;

So let’s institute a Zero Tolerance policy against hate speech and acts of hate on school grounds and buses. Even the law recognizes the difference between hate crimes and other crimes. We have Zero Tolerance policies for weapons and drug possession (students aren’t even allowed to carry aspirin without a note from their doctor). This is just as important. Consequences should be clearly laid out and consistently adhered to. I would go so far as to say this includes use of the word “nigger” (spoken by both African American student and white students, sometimes in jest) and bitch (spoken both in jest and as a derogatory term). True, the first month you’ll have a shit-ton of kids in detention and ISS. But you know what? They will learn, and YOU WILL BE DOING THEM A FAVOR. Because in the real world, you just can’t say anything you want without repercussions. There are consequences to both your actions and your speech. Might as well learn that now. We will all be better for it, and I for one would enjoy visiting the school more if I didn’t hear “nigger” and “bitch” being shouted throughout the hallways. In addition, any acts of physical bullying should be treated and punished as such, also with a Zero Tolerance policy.

To my fellow parents in Pine Bush, please take a step back and think about what your words and actions are teaching your children at this critical moment. If you are blindly defending the district and the people involved, you are missing out on an important opportunity to teach your children to empathize with others and to THINK. To question the things that are told to them by others. TO FORM THEIR OWN OPINIONS (even if it means they differ from yours). If the immorality of denouncing a victim isn’t enough to sway you, DO IT FOR YOUR CHILDREN. They will not be productive members of today’s very fast moving, global and increasingly enlightened society if they don’t have the ability to think for themselves and form opinions and if they don’t have the ability to express those opinions in respectful, non-inflammatory ways. Take a look at the things your kids are posting on Facebook and Twitter. Listen to what they are saying to their friends. Can you imagine your children engaging in this kind of reactionary, knee-jerk, and completely-not-based-on-fact debate in a place of business? In politics? In a place of higher learning with peers who have done their homework?

Neither can I.

If we handle this right, our town will be better for these changes. Nothing can survive and flourish if it doesn’t evolve. Plants, animals, people, and yes, even small towns. To survive, we must be willing to change. To change, we must be willing to admit that we can do better.

I hope this will bring about some kind of sea change. Because the thing is; I get it. I understand that these kids are being raised with their parent’s values and that their parent’s were raised with THEIR parent’s values. I understand that there is only so much a teacher or administrator can do.

But at the very least, we CAN hold ALL students to a certain code of conduct on schools and buses. We CAN model good behavior by denouncing ANY act of prejudice or discrimination, even when it comes from those we know and care about in our community. We CAN have a measured response such as, “I don’t know if these allegations are true, but if they are, they need to be addressed, don’t you think?” We CAN let our children think for themselves by asking what they think and encouraging them to look at every possibility and every point of view.

Because there are worse things than admitting we have a problem — and knowing we have a problem but choosing to look the other way is at the top of the list.