Dear Putnam Valley Community:
The terrorist attack on a synagogue this weekend, the worst such attack in our nation’s history, reminds us that hate speech has a consequence and that there is danger to our most vulnerable institutions, our places of worship as well as our schools. It is heartbreaking to think that in their moment of death, those seeking peace in prayer were showered with hateful and murderous language along with savage bullets. We are also grateful to law enforcement officers who ran toward the danger to avert further tragedy and suffered injuries in that effort. From the posted messages of the perpetrator, we learned how hateful speech can become horrifying action. It is our responsibility as educators to convey that message to our students.
In our schools, we emphasize the importance of respect and civility; it is essential that we teach and establish rules of civil discourse. Those rules include remembering that everyone is valued and deserves to be treated with dignity. We must acknowledge and immediately check hateful words and behavior teaching our students that our speech conveys a powerful message and that some, filled with emotions that we cannot comprehend, will feel compelled to act. We share responsibility in that action.
At our last Putnam Valley Board of Education meeting, we celebrated the service of our Board of Education Trustees to acknowledge the week set aside for that purpose by New York State. A proclamation published by Governor Cuomo was read, and I discussed the commitment of Putnam Valley’s Trustees to our students. It is important to note that Board members may act only as a Board, not as individuals, and their roles and responsibilities are highly regulated through the New York State Board of Regents and Commissioner. Yet, there is great variation in the service and quality of care that Boards enact in performing their roles. Putnam Valley’s Board of Education is consistently seeking to provide the highest quality educational experience for our students while ensuring that the fiscal foundation of the educational program remains affordable to our residents. The Board supports our staff and administration in our efforts to focus on “child, first and foremost,” while challenging us to ensure that we are doing what is most effective and efficient for all stakeholders. Our Board members have had to address areas of governance that include the safety of our schools. They have been vigilant in assuring that we have in place the resources to create a safe environment for our students. This effort continues and is revisited on a regular basis as we practice responses to violence, similar training to that which the members of Tree of Life synagogue had participated in with their law enforcement officers. Many were saved because they created a lockdown and then evacuated safely.
Serving on a Board of Education represents the exercise of civics in our country, where volunteer civic organizations have always performed the essential tasks of our democracy for local governments, and provide community services such as the Ambulance Corps and Fire Departments. Civic groups such as religious organizations, the VFW, Rotary, and Lions Clubs have been at the forefront of giving in communities, as our PTA/PTSA and Education Foundation generously support our schools. Our school clubs provide affiliations for our students so that they practice participation and advocacy in their areas of interest and experience the satisfaction of purpose and doing good through service organizations. There is a unique American tradition of civic participation as was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled America widely in the earliest years of our nationhood, and wrote in Democracy in America in 1835 that America represented “equality in action.” He reported that voluntary civic associations of all types strengthened America through participation in their communities by citizens from all walks of life. Recently, there have been laments about the dwindling of civic life in America, so it is especially important to celebrate those who are willing to take on the complex tasks of overseeing the educational life of children in their community
A critically important goal of the educational process is to ensure that our students are knowledgeable about our history and our quest to embrace the “inalienable rights” of all who call America their land. Recent tragedies, including the terrorist act that killed and wounded worshippers and law enforcement officers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, indicate our need to recall who we are at our best as a nation. As we begin November, the period that includes Election Day and Veterans Day, we are reminded that our most revered rights and responsibilities are tied closely together: our right to vote and our responsibility to serve and defend our country. These are two of the pillars that support our country’s existence and allow us to uphold the rights promulgated in the Constitution.
At a time when there are widely divergent perspectives on how our rights should be exercised, educational institutions are required to help students find the way forward to bridge our understanding of the differences in points of view. With that in mind, our school district is engaged in a project that brings the voices of students and teachers together to find common ground. Students have been seeking quotes from historical documents, literature, and other media that reflect their response to the question: What is the American Idea? What does American mean to them? In their social studies classes, students in grades 6-12 are sharing their perspectives; teaching staff will be grappling with the students’ ideas as one segment of our Superintendent’s Conference Day on November 6th. The hope is that in small groups through “courageous conversations” we can agree on some of the ideas that our students have selected to create our own Putnam Valley community of ideas to be displayed in the schools.
I believe that by honoring what we value in America, we are also paying respect to those who serve our country to preserve those values.
Dr. Frances Wills
Superintendent of Schools