CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Two Shenendehowa High School alumni appeared before the Board of Education recently to express their deep displeasure and frustration with the district’s policies and its alleged slow walking on issues of race relations and gender identity.
T.J. Sangare and his sister, Samira, used the public privilege portion of the Aug. 11 meeting to personally speak to the board in the Gowana Middle School library. In addition to having six of the seven board members present, Shen superintendent L. Oliver Robinson and a number of district administrators were there also.
The Sangares were given the opportunity to speak personally to the board after a group of students and former students made a formal request for the changes appeared at the school prior to the start of the meeting.
Social media had been buzzing earlier in the day that some form of collective action would be taken at the meeting regarding the group’s set of demands.
In his remarks, 2019 Shen graduate T.J. Sangare noted several times that the district’s efforts on equity and inclusion for its marginalized students are coming up short. Rather than enjoying his summer, Sangare said he found himself researching school board open meeting laws, school equity statistics, and dress codes for transgender students.
He claimed that there are students and alumni who are desperate to share their stories of “harm and trauma inflicted upon them at the hands of the Shenendehowa School District”.
“There’s nothing fun in convincing the board and district administrators of the humanity of its marginalized students. There’s nothing fun about standing up to those you once looked up to because they refuse to listen to you and accuse you of being trendy,” he said. “It’s clear that there’s a disconnect between the work in equity and inclusion and how it is applied in the district.”
During his brief statement, Sangare publically called out Shen Athletic Director Chris Culnan for allegedly telling him his efforts on behalf of the marginalized students were uncivil.
In concluding his remarks, Sangare referenced board member comments made earlier in the meeting that focused on the issues of equity and social justice.
Sangare said it was nice to hear the board had recognized and was discussing such important issues but was disappointed at the lack of people of color in the room and holding instructional positions.
“If I’m going to be honest with you, there are too many white people in this room and not just this room but this school,” he said.
In her remarks, Samira Sangare, a 2016 Shen graduate, referenced several incidents centered on racism and gender identity. She also referenced a list of demands or proposals that the group had submitted to the district.
Robinson had received the demands days earlier and had responded to them in writing. His answers did not sit well with Sangare who saw them as just more double talk or in some cases outright lies.
In responding to the fourth demand, which had asked that the district make a public commitment to engage in professional learning around antiracist trauma-informed pedagogy policy, curriculum, and systems including the decolonization of the curriculum, Robinson stated that the district has been committed to cultural proficiency, equity, diversity and inclusion for nearly a decade.
“Simply having the resources available does not assure the district is antiracist,” Sangare said.
When they concluded their comments, Robinson thanked the duo for their comments and told them they had been heard and that their voices had not fallen on deaf ears.
Comments made earlier by board members had indeed focused on important issues.
“We as a board share the same commitment to increase focus as expressed in the demands put to the board,” said board member Naomi Hoffman. “The best way to do that is to listen to our students whether current or former students. We should applaud what they’re doing. Being passionate is not a bad thing; they are committed to being part of a solution.”
Board member Robert Pressly said the country has institutional bias within its culture, and schools have an important role in addressing that situation.
Board member Gary DiLallo noted that racial equality and justice within society is undergoing change, and consequently people’s expectations have changed for the better.
“These are things that should have been changed 100 years ago but they weren’t,” he said. “We can’t expect everything will suddenly change. Taking down statues is a feel-good thing. It doesn’t change structural racism. We are all human beings each and every one of us deserves respect. That is what we need to be working on.”
Board president Danna Stephenson noted she had discussed the list of demands with T.J. Sangare days before the meeting and had questioned the word ‘demands’.
“I understood it was part of what they felt we were lacking here at Shen,” Stephenson said. “To demand change to better society is good. This board supports our young people who are using their voices to remind us that there must be equity and opportunity for all. This is no longer an option and I think we have all come to realize that.”