Updated: Oct 8
Matthew Ferreira Standard-Times
Published 4:11 AM, February 13, 2023
MATTAPOISETT — Community members who were appalled and/or disheartened by comments that have been made relative to racism, gender issues and local non-profit Tri-Town Against Racism took the opportunity at Monday's Old Rochester Regional School Committee meeting to address them.
Monday night's public comments pertained to sentiments that have been expressed by ORR School Committee member Joe Pires in recent months, which Pires had rearticulated last Monday morning during an on-air interview with WBSM's Phil Paleologos, suggesting that his children have "had a wonderful experience" at ORR schools "until the past few years" due to an increased emphasis on addressing racism, and linking that emphasis with the presence of what he called "pornography books" in school libraries — alluding to titles such as "Gender Queer" — as well as "shared bathrooms under the idea of 'LGBQT.'"
Pires went on during the interview to describe Tri-Town Against Racism (TTAR) as "a Black Lives Matter group" whose members "operate by intimidation, bullying, smearing, shaming...."
Non-binary student to committee: Engage with us directly
In response to all the recent discourse around these issues, ORR High School student Alia Cusolito addressed the School Committee on behalf of the school's Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and BIPOC Club during public comment Monday night.
"Everyone has been talking about students rather than with us," Cusolito said. According to Cusolito, the students had "tried repeatedly to get on the agenda for over a month, but our request was denied."
"Many students struggle to feel safe at school," Cusolito said, having noted the presence of transphobia, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia.
On the topic of bathrooms and gender, Cusolito addressed feedback Pires has reported receiving that a female student "no longer feels safe in the girls' bathroom because biological males are allowed to use them."
"Although we find it highly invalidating that topics of safety and comfort in bathrooms are only discussed when concerning cisgender students, we are happy to inform everyone that all students are free to use the gender-neutral bathroom that trans students have advocated for," Cusolito said. "These are individual restrooms which have a lock on the door."
In closing, Cusolito asked that the committee seek input from students directly "rather than having adults outside of the school speaking on our behalf."
Latina student talks of racism, embarrassment
Another ORRHS student, Isabella Doyle, an adoptee from Guatemala, spoke of feeling singled-out in Spanish class by a teacher during a discussion on hispanic culture.
"The teacher made an assumption that because I was Latina that I would have a quinceanera," she said. "It made me really uncomfortable where I dropped the class altogether."
Doyle also told of how classmates called her "Dora from Dora the Explorer."
"When this happened almost the whole class laughed at me. This happened for about a month," she said. Even after students were suspended for the behavior, Doyle said students who knew of the situation "would look at me and laugh in the hall."
"This period of time was very difficult for me to the point that I didn’t want to come to school," she said.
School official's husband hits back at past meeting comments
Tom Kearns, husband of ORR School Committee member Frances-Feliz Kearns, spoke out about "unrelenting racialized harassment" experienced by his two children, who he described as Afro-Latino, Native American and Irish, as well as the tragic circumstance of another of his children who is deceased.
"I am very concerned as a parent who has had to bury a child that has struggled with mental health issues as a direct result of these behaviors," he said, citing the heightened suicide rates of "young people of color and members of the LGBTQ community."
"Why are incidents that are documented by the school itself even up for debate?," he said.
Kearns went on to address remarks made by Pires and his apparent sympathizers at past meetings, including those criticizing his wife and Tri-Town Against Racism.
"I ask what real value this individual brings to this committee except constantly playing victim, spreading false and misleading information resulting in community division and dissention," he said. "I think it is clear that if anyone needs to go, as was disrespectfully said at the last meeting, it certainly is not my wife."
Tri-Town Against Racism VP calls comments about TTAR false
Rhonda Baptiste, TTAR vice president, said she felt "compelled to set the record straight" on Pires' radio and meeting comments calling TTAR a Black Lives Matter and "special interest" group.
"Neither of these descriptions are true," she said, iterating TTAR's 501c3 non-profit status.
"Mr. Pires claims we operate by intimidation, bullying, smearing and shaming. This is 100% untrue. Responding to Mr. Pires' public comments is not smearing, it is public discourse."
In response to Pires' suggestions that racism as a district problem is exaggerated, Baptiste referred to a statement made in 2020 by former Superintendent Doug White: "Despite the efforts as an educational community to address the topic of racism through curriculum and training for both staff and students, we still have not been able to stop the deplorable racial actions and behaviors of some.” [see the transcription of Rhonda's speech below]
"My name is Rhonda Baptiste, I am the VP of TTAR.
After reading Joe Pires message and position on his Facebook Group Tri-Town Buzz and listening to him this morning on WBSM, I am compelled to set the record straight regarding TTAR, as well as the reality of racism in our schools.
Mr Pires referred to TTAR as a version of Black Lives Matter. He also referred to us as a Special Interest Group. - Neither of these description are true. We are a a 501c3 nonprofit working to create a more inclusive community.
Mr. Pires claims we operated by intimidation, bullying, smearing and shaming. - This is 100% untrue. Responding to Mr. Pires public comments is not smearing, it is public discourse. If Mr. Pires thinks his statements should stand unchecked, he should probably not be serving as an elected official.
Mr. Pires claimed that racism was not a problem in our school before now. - This is provably untrue. When TTAR began over three years ago BIPOC members of our community talked about racism that has been occurring in our school for generations. I attended public school in this district at RMS and then the Jr and senior high schools. Racism was experienced by my peers of color through my time in the district. Furthermore, allow me to share a quote from former OR superintendent Doug White from June 2, 2020.
“Over the last couple of months our district has been dealing not only with COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted the daily education of our students, we are also in the midst of some horrific racial events at the local and national level that are causing pain, anger, and hurt to too many of us in our communities. Despite the efforts as an educational community to address the topic of racism through curriculum and training for both staff and students, we still have not been able to stop the deplorable racial actions and behaviors of some.”
Racism in our community is not new. It’s not fabricated or exaggerated. It has always been here. The difference is there are community members speaking out about the issue and the need for education, support and resources. Any attempts to trivialize the racist incidents experienced by community members causes more harm to those already hurt. Any attempts to downplay the effects of these incidents on students and families causes harm.
Our community is smart. We will not sit back and stay quiet when a school committee member is trying to gaslight a community to believe that racism is not a real problem."
Read February 6, 2023 at the ORR School Committee Meeting