By Mila Morgan (’24) and Isaiah Steinberg (’23)
On Monday, January 31, a meeting via Zoom took place for the 8th Grade Curriculum Night. This meeting, intended to inform 8th grade students and their parents about details regarding their upcoming freshman year, ended abruptly as an anonymous individual joined the Zoom and made racial comments multiple times.
“We know we are better than this. We must be better than this.”Superintendent Peter Smith
In response to the incident, Superintendent Peter Smith and J-DHS Principal Paul Gasparini sent out an email to J-D staff and families. The email stated, “We are appalled that our staff would be so terribly victimized and that our community was subjected to such horrific language and actions. We know we are better than this. We must be better than this. As a district, we have embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion as one of the four primary focus areas of our strategic plan, and incidents such as this show that while we have accomplished much, we have much more work to do.” The email announced that the DeWitt Police Department and the technology department would be working to identify the individual(s), and that school counselors would continue to be available to students who need them.
“Ms. Johnson was subjected to being called the N-word multiple times.”Superintendent Peter Smith
According to Smith, “It’s my understanding that there were multiple interruptions. Some have characterized it as noises. Some have characterized it as noises of a sexual nature. Ms. Johnson was subjected to being called the N-word multiple times. I believe there was an interruption where someone was called the B-word.” Dr. Smith was not present in the meeting.
The remarks appeared to be random, unprompted racist outbursts, not in response to any proceedings of the meeting. “I think it was a random interruption,” Dr. Smith said. “I’m not in the mind of the person who did that, or persons, but it sounds to me like it was random – not in response to anything in particular. Although [the remarks were] clearly in response to Ms. Johnson being Black.”
Dr. Smith also stated, “It’s my understanding that someone logged on, their screen name was the N-word – this is while Ms. Johnson was giving her presentation – the person yelled the N-word multiple times. Mr. Gasparini, who was controlling the slides and hosting the meeting, muted the person and then removed them from the meeting. Ms. Johnson continued and finished her presentation. It’s my understanding that a couple of department chairpersons did their portions of the meeting. I think the person logged back on, made some other inappropriate noises, and that’s when Mr. Gasparini ended the meeting.”
Dr. Smith noted that “We’re still working with the police to identify [the person].” He also stated that the district is unaware of whether the intruder was a student or not. The link for the meeting was received only by parents, so the meeting was either hacked into, the remarks were made by a parent or student, or the link was shared with an outside source.
The DeWitt Police Department is now investigating the incident, which could be considered a cybercrime (if the meeting was hacked into) or even a hate crime. “We use the police to investigate mainly because it’s a cybercrime. We don’t have the technology or the tools to be able to access and look at Zoom history to identify an IP address. That’s not something we have the tools to be able to do,” Dr. Smith said.
The district will remain diligent to locate the intruder. According to Dr. Smith, “[Punishment is] in the hands of the police. Hopefully, they are successful in being able to identify someone. If it is a student, they would be subjected to the disciplinary consequences outlined in the Code of Conduct. In addition, they could be subject to some sort of legal ramifications as well. If it was someone from the outside, they wouldn’t fall under the Code of Conduct, just the legal side.”
The Jamesville-DeWitt Code of Conduct states, “All students have the responsibility to respect one another and treat others fairly in accordance with the District Code of Conduct and the provisions of the Dignity Act. To conduct themselves in a manner that fosters an environment that is free from intimidation, harassment, or discrimination. To report and encourage others, to report any incidents of intimidation, harassment or discrimination.”
It goes on to say, “Based upon the results of this investigation (the principal is obligated to lead an investigation into possible Dignity Act violations), if the District determines that a District official, employee, volunteer, vendor, visitor and/or student has violated the Code of Conduct or determines that a material incident of harassment, bullying and/or retaliatory conduct has occurred, immediate corrective action will be taken as warranted. The District will take prompt action reasonably calculated to end the violation, eliminate any hostile environment, create a more positive school culture and climate, prevent recurrence of the behavior, and ensure the safety of the student or students against whom such violation was directed.”
“All acts of discrimination and harassment based on race, age, sex, sexual orientation, color, creed, religion, national origin, ethnicity or disability are prohibited.”J-DHS Student Handbook
The J-DHS Student Handbook declares, “All acts of discrimination and harassment based on race, age, sex, sexual orientation, color, creed, religion, national origin, ethnicity or disability are prohibited. Students who are accused of violating this policy will be referred to the Compliance Office of the Jamesville-DeWitt School District.” It notes that the current compliance officer is Assistant Superintendent Nate Franz.
It elaborates, “Students who verbally assault a teacher through name-calling, threats to person or property, swearing, and/or profane epithets will face a minimum of two days out-of-school suspension.”
Meanwhile, according to New York State Criminal Code Article 485.05, “A person commits a hate crime when he or she commits a specified offense and either: (a) intentionally selects the person against whom the offense is committed or intended to be committed in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct, or (b) intentionally commits the act or acts constituting the offense in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct.”
New York Penal Law Article 156 states, “A person is guilty of computer trespass when he or she knowingly uses, causes to be used, or accesses a computer, computer service, or computer network without authorization and he or she does so with an intent to commit or attempt to commit or further the commission of any felony.”
Immediately following the curriculum night incident, Assistant Principal Candace Johnson texted pastor and previous J-D Board of Education candidate Bishop H. Bernard Alex. The text read, “A couple of knuckleheads bombed the meeting during my portion. I was repeatedly called, repeatedly called the N-word.”
Throughout this controversy, Dr. Smith has pointed to J-D’s new Strategic Plan, which calls for diversity training. The district also plans to increase the number of Black staff members.
The district remains committed to addressing acts of discrimination. In an interview with NewsChannel 9, Dr. Smith stated, “We missed an opportunity to name and call out an overt act of racism and to protect and stand by Ms. Johnson. Certainly, we need to learn from this. We need to do better. We need to do better in our response to everyday incidents of racism and bigotry.”