Racist behavior at college sporting event hits Pearl River again

NYACK – Other racist incidents involving Pearl River and Nyack sporting events have been reported, this time among middle school students.

At two separate track events, one on May 9 and the other on May 17, Pearl River students used racist language about Nyack students, said Eudes Budhai, superintendent of Nyack schools. Both were reported to school officials.

In the May 17 Modified Level Athletics meet, the “n-word” was used by a Pearl River team member against a Nyack competitor in a multi-school tournament at Suffern Middle School .

The student informed the coach, Budhai said. Led by the coach, the team came out.

“We did it very professionally,” Budhai said. “Coach took our kids away from that environment. You want to make sure your students are safe.”

The school year has been marred by hateful incidents in Pearl River. In the first month of school, a Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance billboard was vandalized twice.

In January, LGBTQ symbols were found destroyed in a teacher’s classroom.

Then, during a college basketball game on February 9, Pearl River students made racist noises at a Black Nyack basketball player.

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Nyack NAACP President Nicole Hines held discussions with Pearl River Superintendent Marco Pochintesta after the February incident. She said she then told him that steps needed to be taken to demonstrate that this needed to stop.

“Nothing happened,” she said. “You left the door open. You created this.”

Nyack NAACP President Nicole Hines speaks about recent racial slurs at the Nyack School District office in Nyack on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

The Nyack School Board and Superintendent are also calling on Sports Section 1 to take action. School trustee Beth Davidson said she was contacted by people in the county upset about the latest racist incident. She and Hines also encouraged them to contact Section 1 and vent their frustrations.

“Not just in comments on Facebook”, Hines mentioned.

After the February basketball game, Section 1 temporarily took home field advantage away from Pearl River sports teams during the playoff season. Section 1 executive director Todd Santabarbara is a former athletic director for Pearl River.

Section 1 leadership released a statement saying they are “alarmed and deeply concerned at the repeated actions of hate and discrimination that have been reported. All of our member schools expect them to provide a welcoming environment and affirming to all students – athletes, coaches and staff.”

The Sporting Council and Section 1 Executive Committee were monitoring the situation, the statement said.

Nyack Union Free School School District School Board Member Beth Davidson speaks about the recent racial slurs at the Nyack School District office in Nyack on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

During this time, a Statement from Budhai and the Nyack School Board said the district is “exploring all possible legal remedies to protect our athletes from any future acts of racism and emotional harm.”

“Racists are cultured”

Pochintesta, in a May 18 letter to the communitysaid the students responsible for what he called “anti-black remarks” had been identified and “held accountable.”

Wilbur Aldridge, Mid-Hudson and Westchester regional director of the NAACP, said he has spoken with Pearl River officials about these and past incidents.

“They claim they did something, I don’t know,” he said. “There are kids out there, who use the n-word very comfortably and often.”

While Aldridge said he understands privacy concerns for minors, he thinks the district needs to be clearer about its actions.

The Pearl River School District is 2% black, 16% Hispanic or Latino, and 76% white, according to data from the New York State Department of Education. Nyack schools are 16% black, 26% Hispanic or Latino, and 42% white.

Pochintesta, saying the district has “zero tolerance for such hateful thoughts,” added in his letter that “I know this behavior in no way reflects the true character of our school community.”

Dr. Marco Pochintesta Pearl River Schools Superintendent at district headquarters on February 11, 2022. He spoke at a press conference regarding racist taunts from Pearl River High basketball fans.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day released a statement Thursday condemning “this appalling behavior that has no place in our community.”

Day reiterated his statements made following the February incident that “the actions of the few do not define the minds of the many, but we all have a responsibility to speak out against all acts of ‘intolerance”.

Aldridge reflected on the role of parents, as well as community and political leaders. “Racists are grown. Just like a weed grows in the yard.”

“Everyone is talking about how bad the situation is, that we’re not going to tolerate it,” said Aldridge, a longtime Rockland resident. “But they do.”

To assess the cost of such disregard, Aldridge said, look no further than the attack on a Buffalo supermarket in a black neighborhood just a week ago.

“At 17 he wrote a manifesto,” Aldridge said of the 18-year-old accused of the white supremacy-fueled murders. “But nobody did anything.”

Aldridge added, “The same kind of thing that happened in Buffalo could happen here. Because that’s the climate of the country.”

Hines also has Buffalo in mind. She pointed to the “systemic level” of hate that kept repeating itself. “If we don’t stop this, we’re creating the same narrative for this community,” she said. “Do we want that?”

“More Than Enough Warnings”

What action was taken by the District and the community of Pearl River then, and now, ask several community activists.

“There were more than enough warning signs that there was a serious problem there,” said Virginia Norfleet, CEO and founder of Haverstraw African American Connection, which co-directs better togethera collaborative program between HAAC and the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, located at SUNY Rockland Community College.

Norfleet said Pearl River students are scheduled to visit the Holocaust museum already this spring.

After the basketball incident, Holocaust Center CEO Andrea Winograd added programming through Better Together, which builds public engagement to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and all kinds of hate through community building, conflict resolution and critical dialogue.

“The programs changed because it was necessary to deal with these racist taunts,” Norfleet said.

Norfleet said the program appeared to be successful and the high school students – volunteer participants – seemed engaged. “We were told there would be more,” Norfleet said. “But they never followed.”

“I think the mistake Pearl River made was the lack of follow through,” Norfleet said. “You can’t wave a wand to end racism or anti-Semitism. You can’t hit it with an injection. It has to be a dialogue, constantly.”

Proof of this is, Norfleet said, the recent incidents. “They put a bandage on it, and it’s coming back.”

Virginia Norfleet, CEO/Founder of Haverstraw African American Connection, collaborates on the Better Together program with the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education based at SUNY Rockland Community College.

The Pearl River School Board adopted its Diversity and Equity Policy on April 12. The New York State Department of Education had advocated for all school districts to address DEI. The creation of an equity working group, made up of community members, is part of these policies.

Pochintesta, in his letter on the recent incidents, urged community members to volunteer for the task force.

Nyack has worked on equity and inclusion issues for years and has been identified as a leader in these efforts statewide.

Budhai said Thursday the offer was valid. “We are always ready to support others.”

Nancy Cutler writes at People & Policy. Click here for his latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.