Thursday, December 13, 2007

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Community Responds to Symbols of Ethnic Intolerance

An incident among several students at Hendrick Hudson High School on November 21 is believed to have led to a cross-burning on the lawn of one of those students later that day. The seriousness of these incidents led to an immediate response from the school district, local religious leaders, and town officials in an attempt to address
the community’s concerns.

The Town of Cortlandt, the Hendrick Hudson School District, and the Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association
held a public forum within days of the incidents. Hendrick Hudson Diversity Consultant, Dr. James Child, together with school administrators, spent their thanksgiving weekend with a regional crisis team from area schools to address appropriate responses to the issue.

By the following Monday, according to Hendrick Hudson spokesperson Tito Davila, “student forums were organized to hear the students’ concerns and to help school administrators understand how the incident
could have happened.”

According to Mr. Davila, grassroots efforts in 2005 from teachers, Community Responds to Symbols of Ethnic Intolerance parents, and community members had already led to the development of a strategic plan for the school district to promote diversity and understanding.

As part of that plan, the district hired Dr. Child and sponsored events in each of the five local schools stressing
cultural and ethnic diversity and tolerance. According to Mr. Davila, the school district strategy states that its mission is “To embrace the diversity of our community and our world.” And, that each of the district’s schools have a diversity committee to enable that strategy.

But despite the presence of such efforts and an established “Student Code of Conduct”, the school superintendent, Dr. Daniel McCann, in a press release addressing the thanksgiving-eve incident, noted that, “ The district still needs to enhance our respect and tolerance program and help our students and our community cope and understand these incidents and their possible consequences.”

Both Dr. McCann and Dr. Child as well as Hendrick Hudson Principal, James Mackin, and School Board President, Bruce Toll, attended the Town Board hearing in Cortlandt the following week to hear the community’s views and concerns.

Mr. Davila stated “It was good to hear directly from the people.” Dr. Richard Becker, a councilman-elect for the Town of Cortlandt Town Board, and a town resident for more than twenty-five years, echoed Mr. Davila’s sentiments. Dr. Becker believes that the town forum revealed that the cross-burning, while the most extreme example discussed, was not representative of an isolated incident of intolerance, but served to uncover a “major issue” of “covert racism” in the community.

Dr. Becker, as well as the town supervisor and current members of the town board, the Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association, and the New York State Police, listened November 29th as members of the community spoke of covert and blatant problems with bigotry and intolerance in their midst. Town leaders listened to examples of intolerance towards the African-American community as well as other minorities and homosexuals, along with
issues of anti-Semitism, and other religious bigotry. Reverend Adolphus Lacey, President of the Pastor’s
Association, stated that the problem was “felt by both long-term residents and new arrivals alike”.

Given the seriousness of the cross-burning incident, and the extent of the problem as perceived by the community, the Town Board decided to hire a diversity consultant and to form a “diversity committee”
with town, school, religious, and community members to address this issue head-on. Dr. Becker confirmed
that the next meeting of the Town Board (Tuesday, December 11th, at Cortlandt Town Hall) would discuss
hiring the consultant, identifying issues as well as the needs of the community and what barriers specific
groups face, in addition to public education, and how best to partner with the schools to provide the community
with a unified response.

Like many Westchester communities, the Town of Cortlandt is comprised of incorporated villages, Croton-on-Hudson and Buchanan and hamlets, Montrose, Crugers, and Verplank. According to the United States Census Bureau, these districts are predominately Causcasian – almost 94% of the population in some areas, exceeding the breakdown in both New York State (74%) and the U.S. (80%). Rev. Lacey notes “It is hard to be diversified in a homogeneous society.” Many of the people who live in Cortlandt also work in Cortlandt. He believes the concerns of the community could be helped through more diversity in the leadership positions in both town and school administrations to reflect the ethnic makeup of the town.

Chief among Rev. Lacey’s concerns is the act of cross-burning itself. The Westchester District Attorney’s
office has a Bias Crime Unit designed to handle such cases.

D.A.’s office handles approximately 100 reported bias crimes each year but notes “Every case is different”.
However, a spokesperson for the D.A.’s Bias Crime Unit felt that many such incidents are based on
ignorance and anger – individuals provoked into “trying to get a rise out of the other party.” Rev. Lacey
disagrees. He believes that the perpetrators of such crimes are aware of the historical significance of their actions;
that a burning cross was used to “signify a warning to a black man” who “touched” a white woman. The
D.A.’s Office noted, however, that the architects of some bias crimes are actually members of the very ethnic
groups who were the traditional victims of their acts (Swastikas sprayed by Jewish perpetrators).

While neither the town nor the school district has established a set deadline for their efforts, the Pastor’s Association is already planning a “Day of Celebration” for next month, appropriately scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21, 2008.

President of the association, Rev. Lacey believes that the religious community should be the model for tolerance and that by worshipping together, the local religious leaders can “show the community how to demystify

The Pastor’s Association is planning on including leaders of all local religious groups to participate in their celebration to be held in the Peekskill High School auditorium.

The goal of the Day of Celebration, in the words of Rev. Lacey, is to “put the community together.” Lacey hopes that by “facing the harsh realities” of the problem head on, the community can solve it, together.

Northern Westchester Round-Up


New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo voiced his opposition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s relicensing of Indian Point. The county executive, Andrew Spano, announced his decision
to boycott future Indian Point emergency drills.


The Village Board held a public hearing to discuss the 2008 budget. The proposed budget is $26 million, an increase of almost $2 million resulting in a 5.9% tax hike for residents. The Teatown Lake Reservation
has been awarded a $29,000 state Environmental Protection Fund for trails and signs.


Following an inspection by the state Department of Transportation, the Wood Street Bridge has been closed. The foundation and reinforcements have been eroded causing engineers to fear a failure of the bridge in a storm.


The Democratic Committee Chair, Joe Apicella, was found guilty of unfair campaign practices by the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee for allegations and characterizations
made in his campaign Fliers.

– Catherine Wilson

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