Schenectady Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Wednesday apologized for the “hurt, anger, disappointment and fear” caused by a Schenectady High School email last month suggesting teachers use phrases like “ethnic cleansing” and “anti-Zionism” to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The email, which was sent by the high school’s culturally relevant committee and included a list of resources from the Palestinian perspective, stirred controversy among Schenectady teachers and the broader Jewish community. Many said the email presented a “one-sided” view of the conflict and could be viewed as anti-semitic.
Bochniak, said while not intended, the email did cause hurt, “because it did not include the necessary context and framework to help move the dialogue in the right direction.” He acknowledged the email missed important context and did not include an effort to understand and include that context prior to it being sent widely to high school teachers.
“I would agree it was mismanaged and that work should have happened prior to supports being provided or an email being sent,” Bochniak said in comments at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, which he framed as a response to a Daily Gazette editorial critical of the district’s handling of the email.
The high school’s culturally relevant committee is made up of teachers tasked with supporting the goal of making teaching in the school more engaging and relatable to all students.
“Ultimately, the work is intended to make teaching and learning relevant and supportive of all students,” Bochniak said of the culturally relevant committee. “The work of these teachers does not mean that they are the experts; they are learning the work by doing the work and encouraging difficult conversations. Sometimes they need help and support, too.”
But Wednesday’s meeting also showed the lingering concerns among teachers about the email, the process – or lack thereof – that led to its distribution, and how school and district leaders have responded.
Amy Salzman, a Schenectady teacher who is Jewish, called into the meeting to publicly address the school board. Salzman said the email in an attempt to highlight the mistreatment of one group of people perpetuated prejudice against Jewish people, and she took direct aim at the words the email suggested teachers use to describe the situation in the Middle East.
“Turning the ugly face of prejudice from one group to another in an attempt to raise up the latter is folly,” Salzman said. “To teach our students Israel is involved in ethnic cleansing is inaccurate. Teaching our students to be anti-Zionist is, in a word, racist.”
She said the discussion at a meeting on the topic last week was “hyper-accusatory” of teachers who raised concerns about the email and noted that those present were asked whether they thought “Black lives matter.” Salzman said she has marched in racial justice protests and was committed to the district’s equity work but that there was still much “work to do to heal wounds” caused by the email.
“Is there work to be done? Yes,” Salzman said. “Do Black lives matter? Yes, but so do the lives of Jews, Palestinians, Guyanese and a myriad of other [backgrounds] represented in the school district.”
School board members on Wednesday night also expressed apologies to those upset by the email, noting the lack of context, and called for unity and constructive dialogue.
“All lives do matter, and I hope we can come together as a community and get through this better,” board member Princella Learry said.
Board member Bernice Rivera said it was important for people to reflect on the impact of their words and actions on other people – not just the intent of those actions.
“We should ask ourselves: what might be or might have been the impact of our actions and words and step back, reflect and listen when we are being told the impact of our actions is out of step with our intentions,” Rivera said.
In his comments, Bochniak said he had heard from some teachers in the district who called on him to disband the high school culturally relevant committee, fire those involved in the email and hit pause on the district’s equity and anti-racism initiatives.
But instead, he doubled down on the district’s equity mission and said it was core to the district’s values.
“Is abandoning this work the message we would want to send to our students or our community?” Bochniak asked? “Because this work is about equity, collaboration, and learning – our core values – and because this work is going to be messy and not always tidy and neat, we will not be abandoning it, we will be leaning in, together, so that we can learn and grow and be the best we can possibly be for the students and the community that we serve.”
Bochniak said he had spoken with state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa on Wednesday about the situation in the district, who he said offered to be supportive of the district’s efforts.
“I shared with her that I intended to lean in and not retreat from this dialogue as it has been suggested,” Bochniak said. “I was glad to have her support.”