Mamaroneck Union Free School District's Race, Diversity and Equity Problem

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My wife and I live in Mamaroneck, NY, a small suburban town, approximately 30 minutes from New York City by train. The school my daughter attends (Hommocks Middle School) is located in the Village of Larchmont; it is the district’s only middle school. According to Bloomberg (2018), Larchmont ranks as the fourth wealthiest place in New York and the 24th wealthiest place in the United States. It has also been recognized by various magazines as being in the top 20, on the list of the 100 best places to live in the United States. Like other Black and Brown parents who live here, we chose Mamaroneck thinking that our children would be safe, receive a great education and benefit from the kinds of opportunities that our parents were unable to provide for us, given our positively supportive yet very interesting upbringing in the Bronx during the 1980s’ crack era.

Although we were initially enchanted with Mamaroneck Public Schools, the veil has been pulled back on what we now recognize is a school system that struggles with race and one where diversity is heavily curated at all levels, not only by the superintendent (Dr. Robert Shaps), but also by the historically almost entirely-White school board. While the school board has had Latinx membership, I cannot find evidence of even one Black person ever serving in that capacity. For the sake of context, let’s take a moment to briefly summarize a few significant, distinctive, disturbing and fairly recent facts about Mamaroneck Public Schools:

• In 2012, the district was investigated over the span of one year by federal monitors following a complaint to the United States Department of Education's Office For Civil Rights (OCR) by a parent. The investigation found that the principal of Central Elementary School (Carol Priore) subjectively placed non-White students in only one of four possible Kindergarten classes for two straight academic years (2010-2011 and 2011-2012). Rather than discipline, fire or otherwise hold the principal accountable, the district promoted her to assistant superintendent. The number, content and tone of divisive comments posted on an online community website (Patch.com, 2012) that covered the story are very telling – as it shows how negatively many in the community view non-White residents primarily based on their race/ethnicity/socio-economic status. 

• In 2016, the district was investigated by the New York State Education Department following a complaint by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Latina parent and her son. The investigation found that the district – by way of assistant superintendent Dr. Michael Kollmer – unlawfully refused to enroll a student who recently moved to Mamaroneck from New Rochelle, but had previously lived in Guatemala. After sending police to the young man’s home to verify residence, Dr. Kollmer falsely claimed that the student had already graduated from high school in his former country and refused to enroll him. The New Rochelle School District allowed the student to attend high school there temporarily until the outcome of the state’s investigation was completed, at which time the state’s education commissioner (MaryEllen Elia) issued an order forcing the Mamaroneck School District to enroll the student. (Lohud.com, 2016; NYCLU.org, 2016; NYCLU.org, 2016a)

I have had my own personal experiences of bias in the district as well. 

For instance, in 2016, assistant superintendent Dr. Kollmer, stood up and yelled at me from across a table, during a scheduled meeting we requested to discuss my youngest daughter’s progress at Central Elementary School. What prompted this reaction you wonder? I questioned what the school had been doing instructionally. Without warning, Dr. Kollmer stood up and violently berated me, with bursts of saliva exploding from his mouth in all directions, as though a rabid pitbull intent on taking my life, if only not obstructed by the table between us. Dr. Kollmer then proceeded to call me names, “aggressive,” “combative” and “challenging;” interestingly enough, these are all the behaviors he was demonstrating in that moment toward me, a parent. A district colleague eventually escorted Dr. Kollmer from the room.

When I emailed the superintendent and board about this interaction and demanded an apology, I was told (1) no apology would be forthcoming, (2) that an internal investigation had already been conducted and (3) that I would be notified of the outcome of the investigation at a later date. Keep in mind, at this time, neither the superintendent nor board had actually interviewed me to hear my account personally. Such an interview did not take place until after I responded to the superintendent’s email questioning how he could possibly come to the conclusion of an investigation without first speaking to me (the complainant) or to my wife who was also present. Needless to say, despite going through the motions and eventually speaking with me in person (in the presence of assistant superintendent Carol Priore), I was never notified of the outcome of their so-called investigation. Dr. Kollmer was never reprimanded (to my knowledge) and has since retired. Are you seeing a trend here?

Many residents of Mamaroneck have begun to ask, “Why are these kinds of incidents continuing to happen and why isn’t anyone doing something about it?” I believe the answer has a lot to do with the act and utility of silence (Di Angelo, 2012) and the ways White district administrators and board members employ it. It might also explain the reasons White students are failing to receive a much-needed education about race (Michael & Bartoli, 2014), diversity and tolerance. Over the years, I have witnessed, read about and experienced intentional efforts to silence parents like me when matters of race, equity and even instructional practices are raised. Emails I have sent to the school board pleading for the district to think more critically about its practices especially around race and diversity have either been completely ignored or receive a cursory response to confirm receipt. In those emails, I attached scholarly articles/research and specific information relating to the district’s own diversity data/lack thereof.  I also offered to connect the district with skilled diversity and inclusion practitioners. I even highlighted some of the ways neighboring school districts, with similar demographics, are celebrating diversity.  Still, I see no action. Why have they ignored me? The answer is simple: because they can. They can ignore people like me with no consequence for doing so. Their goal and intention is to silence me, and others like me. Meanwhile, those who hold privilege in this community and stand witness to these atrocities choose to sit in silence. Whatever the point of entry into the silent space surrounding race and diversity in Mamaroneck Public Schools, it is clear that the result is the same – crickets.   

Ironically, the district often boasts about its “diversity;” but having lived here for a while now, I recognize that their diversity is highly curated. It’s just enough to claim diversity, but not enough to make the very affluent and privileged uncomfortable. It’s just enough for district administrators to make the claim that English language learners are dragging down their achievement data (this actually happened by the way), but not enough to make White students here uncomfortable calling their peers racial slurs. The area seems to have found a balance that works for Whites, between the amount of diversity that brings construction/development money and young affluent White professionals rushing into the area from New York City, for the schools and a variety of ethnic restaurants. But that “balance” also keeps those affected by the ominous system of White supremacy visibly and audibly “in their place,” even while in school.

When it comes to hiring, Mamaroneck often recruits from a single district in New York City (district two) and overwhelmingly maintains a racial underclass of minority staff that are relegated to supporting roles, rather than teaching and leadership roles. In fact, the district has a long-standing history of claiming that more diverse candidates cannot be found while offering up ever-pending plans to recruit from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, their go-to and never actually enacted solution. And according to the former (now retired) middle school principal and the recently appointed one, no plans exist to introduce any curriculum or any approach that might expose all students to more inclusive ideas of race/ethnicity and tolerance while they are learning in the same space. All this despite the fact that the racial and socio-economic demographics of Mamaroneck are drastically and rapidly changing.

In sum, Mamaroneck Public Schools has developed a hardened stance of indifference to the experiences of Black and Brown students and their families. They simply tune us out (defaulting to tone-deafness) rather than listening and empathizing when concerns are raised audibly and overtly by parents throughout the district, as was done both last year and at the start of this school year. Sadly, not only are the superintendent and school board complicit and choosing not to listen, they are actively trying to impose silence. In so doing the result is as upsetting as it is predictable: a White boy attending Mamaroneck Public Schools called my daughter a “nigger.” 

Read "A White Boy Called My Daughter A Nigger" here.

References

Di Angelo, R. (Feb, 2012). Nothing to add: A challenge to white silence in racial discussions. Understanding & dismantling privilege, vol. II, No. 1, pp. 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.wpcjournal.com/article/view/10100/Nothing%20to%20add%3A%20A%20Challenge%20to%20White%20Silence%20in%20Racial%20Discussions

Lohud.com. (2016). Mamaroneck Accused of Illegally Barring Immigrant Student. Retrieved from https://www.lohud.com/story/news/education/2016/05/05/mamaroneck-guatemalan-student-nyclu/83968024/

Michael, A. & Bartoli, E. (2014, Summer). What white children need to know about race. Independent School Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/summer-2014/what-white-children-need-to-know-about-race/

NYCLU.org. (2016). Petition for Student Barred from School. Retrieved from https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/releases/Petition_for_Student_Barred_from_School_201605_0.pdf

NYCLU.org. (2016a). Immigrant Student Enrolling Today In Mamaroneck High School Following Commissioner’s Order. Retrieved from https://www.nyclu.org/en/press-releases/immigrant-student-enrolling-today-mamaroneck-high-school-following-commissioners

Patch.com. (2012). Are Minority Students at Larchmont School Being Disproportionately Assigned to Same Class? Retrieved from https://patch.com/new-york/larchmont/larchmont-s-central-school-kindergarten-less-racially0102a46474

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David Martin, Ed.D. (ABD) is a veteran education administrator and former principal working in New York City. He holds two master’s degrees and is completing his dissertation and doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.