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'I am horrified.' RCSD teachers placed on leave after offensive text messages uncovered

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester) logo Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester) 6/22/2022 Justin Murphy, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Six teachers at Enrico Fermi School 17 in Rochester are on leave after students discovered a series of text messages among them using vulgar slurs to describe the children and their parents and wishing one girl would "beat the (expletive) out of" another.

Another message suggested sending out an automated phone call to "90% of the kids" and their families that would say: "I'm calling to remind you that you are a (expletive) parent and your kid is a (expletive) like you. Thanks."

Another one said: "Dave said I have to take my clothes off in the garage and put them in a bag and put them in the dryer on hot, and then get a job in Penfield." Two teachers responded with laughter.

Jennifer Lopez, the mother of one of the students named in the messages, said students discovered the messages May 21 when one of the teachers in question allowed them to use her phone to make a video. They saw the group text notification come up and recognized a fellow student's name in it.

Lopez said there was large group meeting May 25 with the children, parents, teachers and school and union officials present. She said the teachers admitted they'd written the texts and apologized.

Jennifer Lopez, center, reads a message from her phone while surrounded by family members at her house in northwest Rochester May 27, 2022. Her daughter and other School 17 students were referred to in offensive terms by teachers in a group text message chain. © Justin Murphy/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Jennifer Lopez, center, reads a message from her phone while surrounded by family members at her house in northwest Rochester May 27, 2022. Her daughter and other School 17 students were referred to in offensive terms by teachers in a group text message chain.

"I told them: 'I don't think you're sorry; I think you're sorry you got caught,'" Lopez said Friday. 

She added: "I understand, teenagers might get under your skin a little bit. But these messages — you're grown. You're supposed to be someone they can trust."

The students referred to in the messages are eighth graders, meaning they are in their last few weeks of attending School 17 before heading to secondary school in the fall.

"I am horrified at the racist and demeaning references and language used to describe children…our children!" Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small wrote in a message to staff. "The staff members have been put on leave and the District will use all forms of available discipline up to and including termination."

A visibly distressed Myers-Small elaborated on her remarks at a press conference Friday afternoon. For one thing, she rejected the notion that how the students accessed the phone in any way overrode the significance of the content of the messages.

"The event happened, and that's concerning to me," she said.

Rochester City School District Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small answers questions about an incident at Enrico Fermi School 17 on May 27, 2022. © Justin Murphy/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Rochester City School District Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small answers questions about an incident at Enrico Fermi School 17 on May 27, 2022.

Five teachers' names are visible on the text message screenshots; Myers-Small confirmed they were five of the six who were suspended. They are: Abby Bardanis, Jorge Degro, Samantha DiNoto, Derek Kelly and Alicia Renner. The sixth name has not yet been disclosed.

It marks the second time this month that RCSD teachers have been caught demeaning, or are alleged to have demeaned, their students. Patrick Rausch, a School of the Arts teacher, is on leave after allegedly forcing Black children to pick cotton and taunting them for not being able to escape shackles.

Latest update: RCSD teacher accused of making Black students pick cotton sues parents, Rochester nonprofit

Background: Rochester teacher on leave after allegedly making Black students pick cotton

School Board Vice President Beatriz LeBron said she wants the School 17 teachers fired.

"If you don't want to work with our kids, nobody's forcing you to work with our kids," she said. "There are other people who do want to work with our kids."

'Rochester teachers are not racist'

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said: "Everybody, and especially the students, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

At the same time, he said it was important to allow due process and rejected the notion that the two situations indicate racism on behalf the teaching corps, which is overwhelmingly white in a district that is 90% non-white.

"I know the Rochester teachers are not racist; quite to the contrary," he said. "Teachers choose to teach in the CSD as a matter of choice. … When we have information such as what is emerging from School 17 or SOTA, I think everyone ought to accord due process and not pre-judge and jump to conclusions."

The district has taken steps in recent years to add anti-racist and culturally responsive professional development and materials but has faced pushback from some teachers who believe the word racism itself is accusatory.

"If you frame it as anti-racism, they won’t come; even when they come, they won’t come," Urbanski said in 2018. "But if you frame it as teachers needing to know their student and acknowledge there is implicit bias and it’s a factor and they need to do something about it, they will come."

Myers-Small said Friday that about 700 of the district's 5,600 employees have undergone anti-racism education aligned with newly adopted state standards, but that others have done other, similar professional development programs in the past.

Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at jmurphy7@gannett.com

Editor's note: A sentence in this story has been modified since first published to clarify the status of allegations against RCSD teachers.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: 'I am horrified.' RCSD teachers placed on leave after offensive text messages uncovered

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