An unsigned flier left in mailboxes this month urged Dobbs Ferry residents to attend a board of education meeting on Nov. 9 to register their objections to the implementation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan (DEI). 

The school district created its DEI plan per the state Board of Regents’ May mandate requiring all districts to develop policies and curriculum advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. The district also made use of the Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework (CR-S), the state Education Department’s guidance for formulating DEI plans.

Titled “Do you know what is happening in Dobbs Ferry schools?,” the flier conflated critical race theory (CRT), DEI, and Policy 0105, and stated that it was “being pushed on the students in all Dobbs Ferry schools with no way to opt out of it.”

The DEI plan states that it “seeks to ensure that all students experience a welcoming school environment that is reflective of the diversity present in the larger community.” The NYS School Boards Association’s sample Policy 0105, “Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity in Education,” which the district adopted in June, summarizes, “All children deserve to have equal access to opportunity regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, the language they speak or their background.” 

The flier stated that the recommended summer reading list for Springhurst kindergarten and first-grade students included two books that “focused on trans children and sex changes” and that second-graders were read a book in class about “nonbinary” topics. It also claimed teachers are hired based on race, not qualifications. 

Finally, the fliers stated that taxes are being used to fund trainings to “indoctrinate” teachers with language such as “implicit bias,” “white fragility,” and “systemic racism”; that “equity” had replaced “equality”; and that “Many may not realize equity is the equal outcome for all, NOT equal opportunity for us all.” The message concluded, “We need your help in taking a stand!”

The flier succeeded. The 3 1/2-hour meeting on Nov. 9 was packed. Nearly 50 individuals spoke — 37 supported the DEI plan, 10 opposed it. Of 25 written comments to the board, one opposed the plan. 

"Unfortunately, the flyer… revealed that there are still many misconceptions about the District's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work,” School board president Tracy Baron wrote in a Nov. 23 email to the Enterprise. She added that she and Schools Superintendent Lisa Brady “offered to sit down and discuss the concerns and questions that parents may have. We want to be respectful of different points of view and find areas of agreement whenever possible.”

CRT was a bugaboo. Jack Helmuth and Gennaro Ungaro, respectively, called DEI “just a form of CRT repackaged and rebranded under different letters” and “a small version of CRT.” Antonio Treglia accused the board of “peer pressure” tactics. Mike Merrow called DEI “a window to implement thought control.” Some stated DEI would force children to conform to one way of thinking, and that parents would have no say in their education. 

In contrast, “When you read the plan, you will see that the plan does not aim to tell children how to think or how to feel,” Mindy Walker maintained. Rather, “It gives students the tools to make their own opinions. At its heart, this plan supports a child’s freedom of speech, the first right in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

One goal in the CR-S framework — to “empower students as agents of social change” — was a flashpoint. “…they want children to be agents of social change,” Darrin Ward said. “That is not why children go to school. Just flat out. That’s not what we’re trying to do. That’s propaganda.”  

Some opponents referred to a “political agenda,” without elaborating. Lizz Vicchio accused the board and the Dobbs Ferry Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds programs, initiatives, and equipment outside the district budget’s capacity, of pitting parent groups and students against one another. She insisted some Springhurst teachers were forced to implement the DEI plan out of fear, and students were “afraid to speak their minds, forced to conform, afraid that they would be ridiculed, cast out by their own peers.” 

Some speakers denied a racism problem in Dobbs Ferry. Casey Romany, co-chair of the PTSA Diversity Committee, took issue with that denial. “I’ve heard from some that this work has gone too far… they may not have experienced any problems, but our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] and LGBTQ families… are having their property defaced, their children harassed on our main streets, their stories and histories mostly void from our classroom.”

“DEI is not about the oppressed and the oppressor,” she continued. “DEI is not about an exercise in making white people or white children feel bad about themselves… making children feel personally responsible for our past. DEI is not CRT. Instead of focusing on how to protect our kids from the complicated truth, let’s talk about how to protect our BIPOC and LGBTQ families from social biases and systemic barriers that exist today and hinder our country’s progress.” 

High school teacher Darren Wool, a member of the district’s Race Matters Committee, which offered recommendations that became part of the DEI plan, said “…our children talk about sex, gender, race, even anatomy all the time, whether it makes us comfortable or not. They notice difference, they ask questions about difference.” 

The summer reading list for Springhurst Elementary students included “When Aidan Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff, in which the title character, identified at birth as a girl, felt “he was really another kind of boy.” Awaiting his new little brother, he hopes for acceptance. In “Julián is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love, Julián, who lives with his abuela (grandmother), is so impressed by people in costume headed to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade that he creates his own mermaid costume. Rather than chastise him, his abuela takes him to the parade. In “Introducing Teddy” by Jessica Walton, Errol’s best friend, his teddy bear Thomas, tells him he’s always known he’s a girl teddy, not a boy teddy. Errol says, “I don't care if you're a girl teddy or a boy teddy! What matters is that you are my friend.” 

In his written comment, Aric Wiser suggested parents be notified when certain books would be read, and given the choice to opt out. “I should have the decision on how my children are being taught about sensitive issues,” he wrote. “I do not co-parent with the government or the Dobbs Ferry School District.”

Jessica Nunez, who has one child in each of the district’s three schools, noted, “If something makes us uncomfortable, we have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s what learning is all about.”

Addressing an unspoken fear, Lauren DeVilbiss explained that her gay friends, growing up seeing only straight characters in books, didn’t become straight. “I hope that learning more about these books and their use in the classroom will quell any fears that reading books about gender will make your child’s gender change….” 

Virginia Ungaro expressed both trepidation and a desire to feel part of decisions. “I just want to be included in the conversation,” she said. “I want someone to say to me, ‘Today I’m going to read a book in the library about two grandpas that are married and they have a child or a grandchild or a little boy that’s wearing a dress and he’s called Rainbow Boy — only because maybe I’m not ready to discuss that with my third-grader… I want some say in that. I want to feel like you hear me, I want to feel like you understand me. I’m a parent, I deserve that. I’m not against diversity. I just want to be included in this beautifully symbiotic moment everyone’s having, and I’m not having that moment.”

Rick Jaime-Bettan said that as a gay teen in high school, he was teased, bullied, and separated from his peers. According to Bettan, four times as many LGBTQ children attempt or commit suicide than straight children. He affirmed that a program such as the DEI plan saves lives. “I can’t stress that enough, and I can’t thank you enough, for providing an environment for my son, a Native American adopted son of two gay men, to grow up in a school that values that, and understands that identity does matter… is important… is how we view ourselves in the world, how we relate to the world, and how the world treats us.”

Later in the meeting, Schools Superintendent Lisa Brady emphasized that DEI work had been happening in the schools since 2017 — before the State formed the concept — through book readings, author talks, guest speakers, workshops, and other offerings for parents and teachers. 

“We did the groundwork, without knowing they would be implementing DEI… we were extremely well-prepared,” she said.

Brady stressed that the district didn’t create DEI out of the blue. “As a superintendent, that [the state guidelines] gives me a set of marching orders, so we’re moving along. It was a wonderful experience over the summer to work with the students and the DEI core team to develop the plan.”

The board met on Nov. 23 for a work session on unconscious bias in school.

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