Dear Pelham Community Members,
Over the past few days, I have heard from many of you regarding my decision to ask staff not to wear apparel displaying any symbols which could be considered political in nature. My initial decision asking staff to remove certain masks was perceived by some to be politically motivated. I want to assure you that this was never my intention. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that the implementation of this policy was inconsistent. As such, I issued guidance to our staff this past weekend that, going forward, we are committed to applying a fair and even-handed approach by disallowing all political speech regardless of content or viewpoint.
This school year, we have heard directly from students and families that the Thin Blue Line flag worn by numerous well-intended staff members was perceived as threatening. While this symbol is understood by some as a sign of respect, remembrance, and sacrifice, others feel it is intimidating. Our schools must be places where students feel safe and respected and it is for that reason that I asked staff to remove the symbol while in the workplace. This was in no way meant to disrespect the legacy of honor and sacrifice of officers in our own community, or to convey a negative bias toward law enforcement in general.
To be very clear, we support and respect our police officers. I feel extremely fortunate to have a strong relationship with both departments in our town. Both Chief Pallett and Chief Carpenter represent the uniform with courage and distinction and have led their respective departments in a manner that is second to none. We have worked hand-in-hand to keep our students safe, and we are a stronger community as a result of their service and dedication.
As a District, we recognize that our schools must not only be places where students feel physically safe, but also where they feel emotionally safe. Throughout last spring and summer, we heard from many students, alumni and families who said they did not feel valued for who they were because of the color of their skin. As a District, we are committed to creating a more just school culture where all are respected and valued. Part of that work is hearing their voices and taking action, even when it is difficult or controversial.
I’d like to emphasize that these issues concern the political speech of staff. School law draws a distinction between what is permissible speech for staff and students and, overall, students have different First Amendment freedoms within the school environment. Therefore, students have been and will continue to be permitted to wear apparel expressing political viewpoints and messages unless the messaging results in a disruption to the school setting.
The ability to talk to one another and find connections across life experiences and cultures is the only path toward healing for ourselves, our schools, our community, and our country. I held a number of open meetings with concerned staff members to discuss these issues this past week, and I am committed to keeping those lines of communication open so that together we make sure that students feel safe in our schools and confident that their voices truly do matter.
Cheryl H. Champ, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools
Dear Pelham Community,
We write to you as Board of Education members and long-standing residents of Pelham and Pelham Manor. We feel strongly that our town is being unnecessarily divided and want to take the time to clarify a few very important points, and address some misinformation, so we can move forward together as one community.
First, we support Dr. Champ and her leadership during an unprecedented time for the school district. The combination of Covid-19 and the political and social unrest of the past several months created an endless number of decisions to make in order to deliver the best possible education for all of our students. She has been tireless in her work and we appreciate her steady hand and willingness to listen, evaluate, and act in very difficult circumstances. We also support the fair and consistent application of Board policy with regard to political speech by District employees.
Second, we have never wavered in our support for our local police, or for law enforcement overall. As Dr. Champ said in her letter to the community on Thursday, we have always had a very close working relationship with both police forces and greatly appreciate all they do to keep our towns, residents, and schools safe. The Board and Dr. Champ are in communication with the Pelham and Pelham Manor mayors and police leadership and we fully intend to work together as community leaders to have the necessary conversations to move forward.
Third, we would like to clarify the history of incidents leading to the recent implementation of our policy around political speech. The issue of staff wearing Thin Blue Line masks was raised by students who felt uncomfortable in our schools when they saw this symbol in the buildings. While we can all understand that the Thin Blue Line symbol is one that has deep meaning for our brave police and their families, in recent years the symbol has sometimes been used by other movements, symbolizing a different meaning. Since it is our job to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe in our schools, staff members who wore the masks were asked to refrain from wearing them while on school grounds. Following this decision, Dr. Champ heard from concerned staff members that her decision seemed one-sided, as some staff members had been allowed to wear shirts associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. While her intention was never to choose sides or to unevenly enforce school policy, we understand that this is how it was perceived by some. In order to promote healing and help staff better understand her decision, she met with all concerned groups to discuss these issues. She then sent a follow-up email to staff clearly stating that going forward, the policy would include any speech, clothing or symbols that could be construed as political. To be clear, at no point were any students asked to stop wearing commemorative sweatshirts which included the Thin Blue Line symbol. Students are not restricted now, nor have they ever been restricted, from wearing the sweatshirts referenced in the media.
In closing, it is very unfortunate that the details and timeline of events have been misconstrued on social media, and misrepresented in outside media organizations. The corresponding online debate and uproar has led to threatening and disrespectful messages to our Superintendent and our Board. While disagreement is healthy and dialogue is important, we hope that it can be done in a respectful way and via our established Board of Education communication channels. This includes email to firstname.lastname@example.org and public comment at our Board meetings. We have a public meeting on Wednesday, November 18 at 7:30pm in the Pelham Middle School Gym and welcome residents to join our public comment period. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, attendees will be limited to 34 in total and all will need to check-in at the school entrance for temperature monitoring and contact-tracing information. Masks and social distancing are required.
We have faced difficult times before and we are confident that we can get through this with respect and civility. Our students are watching closely and we hope and intend to keep the focus on what is best for all of them.
The Pelham Board of Education