Garner, Brown cases raise questions on diversity at MHS

Garner%2C+Brown+cases+raise+questions+on+diversity+at+MHS

The lack of diversity in Massapequa leaves many wondering how the student body is impacted.

Nelson Gomez, Editor-In-Chief

On November 24, a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. The decision came after a lengthy process marred by unreliable witness testimony and conflicting statements on both the prosecution’s and the defense’s sides.

Just over a week later, on December 3, a Staten Island grand jury dismissed all possible charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo was implicated in the homicide of Eric Garner during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Unlike the Brown case, eyewitness video was available for the public and the grand jury to examine, prompting further outrage throughout the United States due to the perceived straightforward nature of the matter.

“Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now,” NYC mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Protests continue amidst concerns that the grand jury system — which is designed to determine if there is probable cause for a case to proceed, rather than establishing guilt — is being abused by district attorneys to avoid prosecuting police officers that allow them to establish cases against other suspects. Locally, over 400 protesters in Amityville shut down Sunrise Highway on December 7  in protest of the decisions, according to the Long Island Press.

Right next door in Massapequa, however, things were quiet. Some students in government or U.S. history courses may have taken a moment to discuss the Brown and Garner cases and connect them to their curriculum, but,  beyond that, there didn’t seem to be much discussion among students other than a brief acknowledgement of seeing it in the news.

“I feel no classes really discussed it,” senior Nicole Kaouris said. “I think we should have been more aware of what was going on, and informed by people who knew the facts. All the stories I’ve heard from other students don’t sound legitimate, and it became a matter of opinion rather than law.”

Consequently, the question in Massapequa becomes whether students are given adequate tools to come to their own conclusions in cases like these, and how much of a disservice the lack of diversity at MHS does to students.

“I think there is a lot of room for improvement,when it comes to teaching about diversity of all kinds: ethnic, religious, political, racial and gender/orientation,” AP Government teacher Ms. Suzanne Borger said, “And when controversial events occur (such as the Brown and Garner deaths), teachers should be comfortable listening to students and facilitating discussion.  We call these teachable moments.”

Former Editor-in-Chief Joe Zappa ‘13 echoed this sentiment.

“Education can show people the light… but it can also play a role in perpetuating racism by failing to address its students’ biases,” Zappa said.

“In failing to institutionalize conversations on race in today’s America in the classroom and failing to hire faculty whose demographics come anywhere near matching the racial makeup of contemporary society, MHS is complicit in the perpetuation of the same structural racism that leads to such a large number of Americans decrying those who protested the grand jury decisions.”

According to New York State public records, about 96 percent of MHS students were white in the 2012–2013 school year. Seven percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Only three students enrolled that year identified as black or African-American.

“Massapequa is not immune from the structural racism that pervades American society,” Zappa said. “In fact, because over 90 percent of Massapequa residents are white and many have lived in nearly all-white towns their entire lives, racism is particularly rampant here.

Despite the uniformity of Massapequa’s demographics, school administrators still strive to provide students with the tools needed to think independently.

“One of the things that I firmly believe in is that it’s not my job to teach you what to think, it’s my job to teach you how to think,” principal Dr. Barbara Williams said, “and to make sure I am supporting the teachers in bringing what sometimes are risky issues into the classroom. Ultimately, whatever conclusions you’ve come to are up to you to decide.”

Dr. Williams said that in a recent staff meeting, she encouraged teachers to address social issues in the classroom and allow room for discussion so that students are more able to freely express their thoughts and viewpoints.

“What I did encourage staff to do is to make sure that [they’re] taking every opportunity to address issues, and where we might not be able to physically experience things because of the homogeneity of our community, it’s certainly up to us to point things out,” Dr. Williams said.

Still, without a more heterogeneous composition of students and faculty, alternative points of view on race relations and police brutality may go unheard, leaving students underprepared for society in institutions of higher learning and, ultimately, the real world.

“When Mr. Bachman arranged the Skyped Katrina/Sandy session with students in New Orleans, that was a fantastic opportunity for his class to interact with a very different group of students,” AP Government teacher Ms. Suzanne Borger said, “And, at the same time, students realized that they had a lot of common concerns.  It would be great if we could expand on that somehow and use technology and other resources to tear down the walls that keep us sheltered from more diverse communities.”

Clearly, students and faculty can’t be converted to a different race and cannot be forced to adopt viewpoints that they do not believe in.

Despite that, it’s still worth inquiring whether the homogeneity of the community is detrimental to pupils and faculty alike.

“MHS does not need to proselytize its students into becoming activists,” Zappa said. “It just needs to give them the opportunity to consider that racism persists in the society in which they live.”

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