School district officials in Schenectady and Niskayuna are working to establish a student committee made up of teens from the two high schools and empowered to develop joint programming.
The student committee – an idea that emerged after Schenectady student athletes were subjected to racial slurs during a Niskayuna soccer game – would be comprised of students from each high school grades and would meet regularly to discuss ways the districts and their students can work and learn together.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said that, if formed, the committee could be the “hallmark of the relationship between Niskayuna and Schenectady."
“Niskayuna was created from Schenectady out of separateness,” Spring added. “Out of that separateness can come some togetherness.”
Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. has also hailed the idea, as the districts work to move past the incident at the high school soccer game.
While officials are still working out details, Spring said he wants to make sure the committee is provided the time and resources to be an effective group. He said students would need the administrative and logistical support for meetings – possibly on a monthly basis – as well as financial resources to implement ideas.
Spring said details of how the committee would spend its time or conduct its work would largely be left to students to work out. He said he hopes the student committee can be established by the end of January, but he cautioned it may take longer.
“We should give that group some power,” Spring said.
In the days after the soccer game, Niskayuna student leaders visited Schenectady and met with players from the Schenectady soccer team, in an effort to take something positive from the incident.
Patience Rhames, a 17-year-old Schenectady senior and soccer player, said she heard racist comments from Niskayuna students in the stands during the second half of the Oct. 9 soccer game.
“I honestly thought it was unbelievable, because kids aren’t usually like that -- especially kids our age,” Rhames said in a recent interview. “We are only five minutes apart, so to hear it from them is ridiculous.”
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Rhames and team captain Alexis Maye, a 17-year-old senior, said some of their teammates left the field crying after hearing the comments. They said, for some of their teammates, soccer serves as a second home -- a break from other challenges in their lives.
“They basically destroyed a home,” Rhames said of the spectators who used the racist language. “Soccer, for a lot of us, is a home away from home, because not everyone comes from a table set for four.”
The students said the two districts should create more opportunities for students to interact and engage with one another. While they said it was a good step to meet with Niskayuna student leaders, they also pointed out who was not there: the students responsible for making the comments.
“They need to hear our points of view and our story and how it affects us,” Maye said of wanting to address the teens responsible. “They need to know how it feels to be in our shoes and experience stuff like that, because it’s not OK.”
Niskayuna junior Reem Djebli, who attended the meeting with Schenectady soccer players last month, said it was powerful hearing directly from the Schenectady students about how the comments impacted them.
"Knowing it's wrong and knowing how it's affecting people are different things," Djebli said. "When you hear someone's personal experience with it, it makes it so much more real."
Djebli said meeting with Schenectady students reinforced to her how important it is for the districts to work together.
Bless Cano, also a Niskayuna student, said the most important aim should be to ensure all students feel they have people and places available if they feel they are being discriminated against or mistreated.
"The most important thing is making sure that students who are discriminated know they have a support system to lean on," Cano said. "They are supported, and they are appreciated, even if some students don't want to appreciate them."
Cano, who immigrated from the Philippines as a young student and said she understands what it's like to be different, also pointed to the importance of ensuring younger students know they have that support system, since youngsters can be especially harmed if teased or bullied.
"It's important for children to know it's OK if you are different," Cano said. "It was never a bad thing that you are different."