The public portion of a Commack school board meeting Thursday night began with a string of students asking that more attention be paid to systemic racism, ethnic studies and the lives of minorities in the United States.
The meeting followed an unruly forum Tuesday on the district’s multiracial curriculum, where parents accused school leaders of teaching critical race theory, sometimes yelling over students who said they experienced racism in their schools.
The school year brought a national reckoning on race home to Long Island, starting after thousands of students and alumni in districts, including Commack, signed petitions and public letters demanding school leaders do more anti-racism work last summer after events that included the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Reaction has grown in recent months from some parents who said that work is divisive and enforces a politically progressive agenda in schools.
A common refrain is that districts are teaching critical race theory, a body of academic thought examining the intersection of race and the law.
At the meeting Thursday night at Commack High School, Marina Khan, an alum, told the board the refrain from some parents that children don’t recognize skin color is false.
A Muslim student whose family came to the United States from Pakistan, Khan said she experienced frequent Islamophobia and racism throughout her 12 years in district schools.
“Color blindness ignores the experiences of race,” she said.
On Tuesday, Commack Superintendent Donald James started the community forum with a disclaimer: “There is no critical race theory in the buildings; we’re not talking about critical race theory.”
That pledge, and educators’ explanations of curriculum they said was meant to teach critical thinking and respect for other cultures, did not satisfy some parents.
On video of the forum viewed by Newsday, one man asked each board member to repudiate critical race theory. A woman demanded that the board stop “pushing diversity on innocent babies … They don’t see color unless you teach them that they’re different colors.” That woman, who did not give her full name, wore a shirt with the logo of Long Island Loud Majority, a group that supported a slate of school board candidates that unseated incumbents in neighboring Smithtown.
The Commack district established a review panel last summer to ensure curricula and books are “age appropriate, fair and balanced and that no student is put in a position where they feel ‘less than’ others,” according to a slide in James’ presentation.
Some material, including the children’s book “Be Who You Are!,” is intended to teach young students about each other’s differences and similarities, educators said.
The educators’ presentations addressed race and racism only glancingly: a middle school social studies unit focuses on the U.S. civil rights movement, and educators mentioned “I am Malala,” a memoir of an Afghan childhood, and the novel “Of Mice and Men,” which has themes of race and racism.
Some students Tuesday said the district needed to pay more attention to race and include more authors of color on reading lists. They were repeatedly interrupted during the forum by shouts from the audience. One student said in an email later to Newsday that they belonged to the local chapter of a national organization, Diversify Our Narrative, described on its website as a student-run group pushing for education reform. She asked not to be named.
Several of the student speakers mentioned the graphic novel “Persepolis,” a memoir of a girl’s experience of the Iranian Revolution, which James said had been removed from the required reading list because some content was deemed not appropriate for high school students.
The book “will still be available on our reading lists and available for electives,” district spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said.
The 5,875-student district straddles the towns of Huntington and Smithtown and was 79% white, 10% Asian or Pacific Islander, 10% Hispanic and 2% Black in the 2019-20 school year, according to the New York State Education Department.