Citizens give Pelham school board mixed reviews on banning staff from wearing political symbols


After a week of controversy surrounding Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ’s decision to ban all political clothing for staff, many Pelham residents and citizens of other towns attended the Pelham Board of Education’s Wednesday meeting, with 13 people participating in the public comments. Since the board can only allow 34 attendees in the middle school gym at once due to Covid-19 restrictions, some waited outside the building for up to 90 minutes in order to comment, and one speaker noted that some individuals left due to the cold and the wait time.

On Nov. 9—after the new policy had already been sent to staff but not further publicized—the union representing New York City detectives wrote a letter to Champ strongly opposing her ban on a sweatshirt that has a thin blue line flag on its sleeve and commemorates the late George Caccavale, a New York Transit Police detective who was murdered in 1976. The debate over the thin blue line flag and other symbols seen on school staff then exploded in local Facebook groups and in local and national media outlets.

The comments at the meeting were split relatively evenly between support and concern for Champ’s decision.

Carla Caccavale, the daughter of George Caccavale and a Pelham resident, criticized Champ’s letter clarifying that the ban extended to all clothing with political speech. “The communication which was sent to the community after this all went down might as well have said ‘Did you miss the memo? We banned both,’” she said. “That was too little, too late. If we were expected to take that and be satisfied, I think you now know that many are not willing to do so.”

Caccavale said the story has gained international recognition, including coverage by, NewsBreak and Fox News Channel, and she has been contacted by people around the world who have been offended by Champ’s decision. “We all make mistakes, Dr. Champ,” said Caccavale. “The world is watching us right now right here in Pelham. How we respond to this can set a powerful example to show many, including our very impressionable children… Pelham already missed the mark on one very teachable moment. Let’s seize the opportunity to capture the next one.”

One commenter, who could not be identified due to the nature of the video feed, said, “This started because children expressed fear and concern. And these are not children with quotes, because it’s been alleged that maybe these are not children who said it. These were children who said it, and we heard them… Right now, what’s upsetting to me is that we have taken an issue that involves students and their comfort level and it’s now become an international media sensation. Because if it’s one, two or three children who say they are fearful of approaching a staff member because of a symbol they see on their apparel, it is our job as adults to address that. It is not on the children to figure out, ‘Wow, this is a teachable moment.’ It’s just not.”

Another commenter noted the heavy police presence at the meeting. “As a Hispanic resident of Pelham, if you’re wondering why people, especially our children and people of color, are feeling intimidated, look around. This is intimidating. This meeting is intimidating. Maybe people find it threatening that the district made an unintentional misstep, and how they initially implemented the policy, but this is where we’ve landed. There are numerous people here that aren’t even from Pelham… It’s a travesty that our community members are locked out of this very meeting that benefits us and our children, in Pelham, not 80% of the people sitting behind me.”

Board President Jessica DeDomenico, attending the meeting via video, said, “The timeline of events has been misconstrued on social media and misrepresented on outside media organizations, and the resulting uproar has forced an onslaught of threatening and disrespectful messages with vulgar language that are menacing in nature to our superintendent and to our board. We recognize the need for tough conversations around these issues, but I hope we can all agree this is not productive in any way.”

Champ said that when schools opened this year several staff members wore masks bearing the thin blue line flag, and she “began to receive several complaint from students and parents that the symbol, not the people, the symbol, made them uncomfortable, as it has become associated with threatening political alliances. I then did some research to educate myself on the history and the various meanings of the various blue line flags.”

“While this symbol means very different things to different people,” Champ said. “Historically the thin blue line (has) a very positive history, the connection the students and families are now drawing between the flag and groups that espouse hostile views could not be ignored.”

Champ decided to ban staff members from wearing clothing that bore the thin blue line flag. Shortly after this decision was made, several staff members wore t-shirts that said “Vote” and had the names of black victims of police brutality on them. “After the shirts were worn, I was approached with similar concerns that these shirts too violated the political speech policy, given the political connotations of the Black Lives movement,” said Champ.

Champ then held two days of open office hours with staff and decided to ban all attire with political speech. At Wednesday’s meeting, she apologized for not “enforcing this policy evenly” initially, adding that “we addressed these issues as they were brought to our attention, and these decisions were not in any way related to the presidential election or to my own political opinions.”

“I know that the children of this school embrace the police and embrace the police in this community and this department, and they should, because we’re here to protect them,” said a commenter. “That’s our job. This (the thin blue line flag) is not meant to offend or hurt anyone in our communities.” He said “a simple fix is to educate the children that the flag on that sweatshirt is not there to offend anyone, and it’s just there to support law enforcement and those people in law enforcement that lost their life in the line of duty… I spoke to the detectives and the police officers that work in this town, and they’re willing to do the same, to speak to the children and educate them on what this flag means in regards to policing.”

Another person expressed his disagreement with Champ’ s decision. “A lot of people from the simple residents are not speaking up,” he said. “A lot of us support the blue line flag… Dr. Champ, I respect that you’ve tried to make what you felt were correct decisions, but I’ll highly recommend next time you have more conversations with more people. There are a lot of us in this town that feel like a lot of things are getting shoved down our throats and our children’s’ throats. If a child is in fear, a child should be taught, especially something like this, that they don’t have to have that level of fear, that if they talk to police, perhaps the school would bring the police in a little more… that they don’t have to have that kind of fear.”

“I tell my son and I have since he’s three. Don’t be afraid,” he said. “And I think we need to teach our children that they don’t have to be feared of. We know there have been issues that have gone on over the years, but it’s an incredibly small amount of officers that have done these things. The vast majority are here to help us.”

Champ read a letter from the two Pelham police departments restating the partnership between the Pelham schools and law enforcement, and Vice President Sue Bratone Childs read a statement from members of the town council, Village of Pelham Manor officials and the board of education and a statement from Village of Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen, all underscoring the positive relationship that exists between the school district and the police departments.

Champ gave more information on the district’s formula for Covid-19 school closure, explaining that a school switching to full-virtual learning depends on the scope of the exposure and contact tracing. Julia Chung, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, said the district continues to follow guidelines set by the Westchester and New York State health departments, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said that close contact is currently defined as spending ten or more minutes in an enclosed space with an individual who has tested positive for Covid-19, regardless of the distance between individuals within the enclosed space.

The board’s next meeting will be held on Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the middle school gym. Video of Wednesday’s meeting will be posted here.