by Jessyca Cardinell
Within a span of a week, there have been two reported incidences of violence among students on Gouverneur Central School buses.
As reported in last week’s edition of the Gouverneur Tribune Press, two Gouverneur Middle School students – white girls, ages 10 and 11, have been charged after allegedly assaulting a 10-year-old black schoolmate inside a Gouverneur Central School bus.
On Tuesday, September 10, the Village of Gouverneur Police Department received a complaint from a concerned parent who reported that her 10-year-old daughter had been physically assaulted and at the same time, subjected to racially motivated language on the school bus. During the physical assault, the victim suffered a blackened right eye caused by being punched in the eye, the loss of hair after getting her hair pulled, and a bruise to her right knee after falling backward into the school bus seat as a result of the victim’s hair being pulled.
The Gouverneur Police Department also identified an adult, Tiffany N. Spicer, 28, of 183 River Rd., Edwards, who is employed by First Student as a bus monitor, and in part, responsible for the safety of the students who ride the bus in which Spicer is assigned, who was witness to the assault carried out upon the victim, but did not make an effort to stop and/or prevent said behavior. Spicer was charged with three counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child on September 23, 2019 and released in appearance tickets returnable to the Town of Gouverneur Court at a later date.
The juveniles have been charged each with one count of Aggravated Harassment in the Second Degree. The 11-year-old juvenile has also been charged with and additional count of Assault in the Third Degree- Hate Crime. The juveniles and their parents have been referred to St. Lawrence County Probation for further action.
Upon hearing of this incident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 25 directed the State Division of Human Rights to investigate the alleged hate crime.
"I am appalled by the reports of the horrendous, 20-minute racist assault on a 10-year-old African American girl in the town of Gouverneur,” the statement reads. “That this was allegedly perpetrated by her own classmates, on a school bus with an adult monitor present, makes this incident even more shocking and troubling. When we put our children on the bus to school, we are entrusting others with our most precious resource and this was an egregious and inexcusable violation of that trust.
"In the face of the recent rise in hate crimes and discriminatory acts, this summer I signed legislation that expanded the authority of the New York State Division of Human Rights to investigate incidents of discrimination in public schools, including on school buses. I am directing DHR to open an investigation into this heinous act immediately, and, if applicable, to take legal action to the fullest extent of the law against the perpetrators. I am also directing the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to provide local authorities with any resources needed to assist in their investigation.
"In New York, violence of any kind towards others based on their race or religion is not only offensive and repugnant to our values, it is illegal. We will never allow hate to win - we will defeat it and we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to help ensure all our children are safe from hate."
A few days later, on Sept. 27, WWNY-TV received a report from Southwest Career and Technical Education Center Principal Lori Sheffield that New York State police were investigating an incident on a Gouverneur Central School District bus which involved two scholars being shocked by an electric shock device. The incident allegedly occurred on Sept. 26 during the 11:30 a.m. bus run from Gouverneur High School to the BOCES center in Fowler. It was reported that one student had an electronic shock device and that two students willingly participated in being shocked by the device. Sheffield told WWNY-TV that all students involved were dealt with according to the school’s discipline code, as the devices are not allowed on school property.
These incidents on Gouverneur Central School buses have raised many concerns in the community, and the Gouverneur Central School District Board of Education made a public statement at their regular meeting held Monday, September 30.
GCSD Board of Education President David Fenlong began the meeting addressing these concerns as follows: “The recent incidences have come as a shock to the community. I too have boys in this school district. As a parent and school board member, I’m left feeling a number of emotions just like yourselves.
“Neither hate nor violence has any place around us, not in our district, not in our school and not in our community. It is true, Gouverneur was written on the side of those buses, but what happened on those buses was not Gouverneur. It never has been and never will be. Hateful acts are dangerous and disturbing and are very disruptive, so keep this in mind, this incident does not define our school. It will test our culture and our climate but our response will be our true measure of our character. We take all instances like this in this nature very seriously, as well as the safety of every scholar and every staff is our first concern.
“We also take very seriously both student misconduct and privacy. We are following all legal guidelines to do this correctly. It is a complicated balance and our administration does a fantastic job of balancing both needs. Our children including my own get on those buses every single day and we trust they will get to school and home safely. We realize this trust is in question, we are very sorry for what happened.
“We will do everything we can to restore your faith and our ability. We have standards and a policy and a commitment to our scholars, families and communities we serve. Our expectations are firm, high and are very clear. One of the reasons we exist is to intervene in those situations where people cannot defend themselves and need help from someone who can make a difference. We will take every opportunity to remind ourselves who we are, why we are here and what it means to be a Wildcat,” said Mr. Fenlong as to what the school district is doing to handle the situations and the expectations that are in place.
“As the Board President I am committed to the belief that our district is recognized, not only for celebrating diversity of all kinds but for encouraging and welcoming it. We will continue to strive for this standard because accepting anything less than 100% in this area will be deemed unacceptable. Our hope is to collectively wrap our arms around these incidences and issues to stop them from ever happening again,” said Mr. Fenlong.
Mr. Fenlong stated that a strong partnership between administration, staff, families and community members is important in these instances from happening, as one person alone cannot handle its enormous impact.
“I do regret having to make this statement and I want to emphasize the actions from a small group should not damage the reputation we’ve all worked so hard to build. The landscape for events like this to happen is busying. Stay vigilant, watch for signs, words, phrases, behaviors and actions. If you see something, please say something,” said Mr. Fenlong on how to take action on such matters.
“We believe in our scholars, we believe in their limitless potential, we believe in their hopes, dreams and aspirations. We are committed doing everything we can to make them a reality for every single one that wants to graduate as a Gouverneur Wildcat. We stand for equity and excellence for a greater path opportunity and limitless power of public education. We applaud the reason our employees come to work every single morning. We believe in the potential of all scholars. As a district and community, we will continue to pursue conversations about what we can do to seek better understanding, compassion and sensitivity for each other. We look forward to ongoing conversations and action, as we continue to use these conversations as another opportunity to learn and create a culture of unwavering inclusion because that is the right path moving forward. We will push ourselves and the result will be worth it. Thank you,” said Mr. Fenlong in conclusion.
Mr. Fenlong went on to open up the first public comment period of the board meeting.
Cheryl Hay, a community member, stood before the school board with a thought-provoking question.
“My understanding was that there was a young man who was on the school bus that aided in helping the young girl get off the bus without any further punishment or whatever you would like to call it. I wondered if this young man was going to be recognized for that?” asked Mrs. Hay, who stated that upon reading that she felt compelled it showed there are a lot of good kids out there. She expressed how impressed she was with this young man’s actions.
Superintendent of School Lauren French was able to answer Mrs. Hay’s concern.
“Mrs. Hay, he has been recognized privately by several different individuals. I do not know if the parent wanted it to be public or not,” Mrs. French said. “But he has been recognized privately.”
There were no other comments made concerning the incident. There is a video also available of President Fenlong’s statement created on www.wevideo.com for anyone interested in viewing. It was shared on the GCSD Wildcats Facebook page. As of press time on Tuesday, the video had already received over 1,500 views.