Colonial, PMHS PTA leaders call on school board to do more to fight hate and bias after swastika found at high school


PTA leaders from Colonial Elementary School and Pelham Memorial High School called on the board of education to do more to fight hate and bias in the schools during Tuesday’s board meeting, following the Oct. 24 discovery of a swastika in a PMHS stairwell.

“I stand here tonight to ask that you take decisive action to put an end to the racism, hate and bias that students are experiencing in our schools,” said Lisa Schaeffer, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for the Colonial PTA, who spoke along with other parents from the school.

While the Colonial representatives acknowledged the district’s actions after the most recent incident of antisemitism followed protocol, they said they found the familiarity of the email sent out uncomfortable. “In fact, the Colonial PTA was here addressing the board exactly one year ago because of a different act of racism found on school property, asking that the district take decisive action,” said Schaeffer. “We refuse to accept this as the new normal.”

Schaeffer called on the board to prioritize the work of implementing its DEI policy and engage a DEI professional to “ensure that DEI is front and center in each building.” The Colonial PTA officials stressed the urgent need to hire a DEI coordinator, a position that is included in the budget. 

“Beyond this, many of our newly elected board members ran on a platform of accountability, communication and transparency,” said Schaeffer. “We ask that the board deliver on those commitments, not just around testing and academic achievement, but on the implementation of the district’s DEI policy, and the benchmarking of progress made against its goals.”

Marjut Herzog, president of the PMHS PTA and a member of the Pelham Jewish Center, also spoke about the latest incident of swastikas being found on school property. “When something gets repeated, it is no longer a mistake, it’s a behavior,” said Herzog. She said the PTA will support teachers and the district by ensuring the resources are provided for education on the Holocaust, as well as learning skills such as allyship and the harm of hate speech. 

(In September 2019, swastikas were drawn in a Pelham Middle School boys bathroom and the boys locker room.)

Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ said once the district staff was notified about the swastika found in the high school, an email was sent out to parents to ensure that all members of the district were informed. She said she also met with Rabbi Benjamin Resnick from the Pelham Jewish Center to make sure that the students at his congregation were supported.

None of the seven school board members responded to the PTA statements. It’s been the board’s unwritten policy since 2019 to not reply to comments or questions from the public.

The school board unanimously adopted its first DEI policy in July 2021, but only after then-newly-elected-trustees Dr. Michael Owen-Michaane and Ian Rowe failed in an attempt to amend it with language Owen-Michaane said came from the state. (Owen-Michaane is now board president and Rowe its vice president). The board sent the policy back to its policy committee to review the language that failed to pass. Last January, a substantive rewrite of the six-month-old DEI policy was considered by the trustees after the committee’s work and adopted in March. The amendments included a redrafting of the definition of “equity” and changing the policy’s final goal from increasing access and eliminating “equity gaps for our students” to maximizing “access to programs, opportunities and resources and to foster academic excellence for all students.”

Just weeks before the school board adopted the first version of the DEI policy in July 2021, the creation of the position of director of diversity, equity, inclusion and wellness was recommended in the cultural competence committee’s report to the board. The position has since been downsized to a coordinator who is to be a teacher working part-time on DEI. The post has yet to be filled 16 months after the committee recommended its creation. The committee report, Recommendations for the Road Map to Cultural Competence, included 28 other goals to be achieved in one to two years and 21 in a three- to five-year time frame.

Read the complete committee report here.

Also during the board meeting, Champ addressed criticism of the athletic department after a number of high school athletes said the football program was given priority over weekday field assignments throughout the fall season.

“As a district, we have been and remain committed to equity and balance in our scheduling,” said Champ. “There is a lot that goes into the scheduling, and we value all of our student athletes and work diligently to make sure they all have equal access to our fields, practice times, and game space and facilities.” Champ said the district did not show a preference to any particular teams. She said many last-minute changes were the fault of bussing and referee shortages. 

The next board of education meeting is scheduled to be held on Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the middle school library.