Family: Racism drove student out of school

SARANAC LAKE — The family of a Black student enrolled in the Saranac Lake Central School District said they are moving away from Saranac Lake after he faced “bias and outright racist comments from students,” reports of which they felt fell on “deaf ears” within the school.

Cindy Shortell’s grandson is Black. She said he “survived” in school into eighth grade. At the end of the first quarter of school this year, they pulled him out of public school and she and her husband Jim began homeschooling him.

“We didn’t feel the school could keep him safe,” Cindy said.

The Shortells attended a school board meeting on Wednesday where a group of community members asked the board to change its policies, to oppose the dismissal of a volleyball coach and to address issues of race and racism at school.

“Is my grandson perfect? Absolutely not,” Shortell said. “But can you imagine day after day being called the n-word and such since approximately third grade and that not having an effect on your mental health?”

She didn’t always believe him, either, which she said she regrets.

“He has an attitude now. And I don’t blame him,” Jim Shortell said. “You can only live so long and take so much crap and not start to rebel from it.”

On Thursday, Cindy wanted to clarify that nothing she said related to Petrova Elementary Principal Bryan Munn and Dean of Students Katie Laba.

“Those two people were on it,” she said, adding that they handled things well every time something happened.

But now, a year before her grandson enters high school, she said they are selling their home here and moving downstate in search of a more diverse high school experience for him. But she said many other families can’t leave.

Alicia Shortell said her son has been a target of racial acts because he looks different than other students and that the school administration is “uncomfortable” every time race is involved in an issue.

“Many of you will say ‘Stop pulling the race card.’ This is entirely about race,” Alicia Shortell said.

She asked the board to change its policies.

Jim Shortell, a 1977 graduate of SLHS, said he planned to live his whole life and die in Saranac Lake. Now they’re moving away because of what has been happening to his grandson. He said his grandson has been bullied in school and felt reports of this had been neglected. He said he’s lost his faith in the school.

“(It) has forced me to give up everything that I believe,” he said.

“Do something, please,” he asked the board.

Cindy Shortell said she had been quiet for a while, but after watching the last board meeting and reading the newspaper, she said she wanted to speak out. She accused school leaders of protecting the district, not the kids.

“We can’t fix something that no one acknowledges is broken,” she said.

Cindy Shortell herself resigned from the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee after two years at the end of the last school year because she was “exhausted” of fighting and feeling like she wasn’t making progress. The committee and its members, though, are “stellar,” she said. She said she has great respect for BOE members Joe Henderson and Nancy Bernstein who are on the committee, and felt Saranac Lake’s DEI committee is very advanced compared to others.

Interim school board President Mark Farmer said on Thursday these sorts of incidents are taken care of by the people in charge of the daily operations at the schools, not the board. But he said the board is very open to hearing about them. He said the board looks to the principals and superintendent to know about these cases, and then it’s up to those administrators to take the appropriate actions.

“I will say we are concerned about actions when they occur like that. We are trying to foster the best possible environment and be inclusive to all the children of the district,” he said.

This is not the first time racism has been discussed at SLCSD. In her 2020 valedictorian speech, Francine “Frannie” Newman spoke about anti-Asian racism she endured for years from classmates and teachers as an Asian student.

Her speech helped spark the effort to get the district’s DEI committee going, even before these committees were required by the state.


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