Letter to the Editor: At home in a culture of intimidation

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When I was a student at Townsend Harris and editor-in-chief of The Classic four years ago, students often got angry at the administration for the way they ran the school. We complained in the senior lounge (does this still exist?) and grumbled in the hallways and occasionally wrote op-eds for the newspaper. We never, ever got organized.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that current Townsend Harris students have learned to do better than we did.

I attend Wesleyan University – that’s Politically Correct University for those of you who’ve never heard of it – where organizing is the topic of discussion at every student event. Deputy Superintendent Pineiro is a Wesleyan alum, which she snidely reminds students of in the video of the sit-in. She says, “I went to Wesleyan, so I’ve done a lot of sit-ins, right?” And she tells the students that when she did all those sit-ins that she knew what she was talking about and had answers for questions that higher ups posed to her.

It’s probably been many years since Deputy Superintendent Pineiro participated in a sit-in, so I’ll offer a little refresher for her. It’s difficult and scary, especially when you’ve never done it before. No matter how well you’ve prepared for it, there are curveballs thrown at you that you have to deal with in real time. One of those is having a spokesperson for the sit-in be bombarded with questions from a powerful person who seems hell-bent on making you look crazy. The videos I watched of the sit-in make it clear to me that there was no intent to gather accurate information from students, but rather to intimidate them and make them feel inadequate for attempting to create change by sitting down.

At Wesleyan, I participated in student organized action for the first time, because there was never an opportunity to do so at Townsend. At Wes, we are also told to be quiet and to stop being disruptive. We are made out to feel silly and irrational, when we know how far from the truth that sentiment is. When people organize against something or someone, it is with good reason.

It’s incredibly uplifting to see students at Townsend organize themselves when they feel as though the adults in power have failed them. As students, especially in a high school, methods for making our voices heard are few and far between. We have institutions like The Classic and the SU [Student Union], but beyond that, we are often dismissed. As an alum, I only learned about the issues with the principal because of student organizing and the sit-in. And as an alum, with whatever power that grants me, I demand that Townsend Harris have a principal that represents the school.

Principal Jahoda said she did not intervene when Pineiro was interrogating students for fear of being perceived as preventing students from expressing their opinions. This is a craven move intended to protect her image rather than admit that she was wrong. If she wanted to, she could have made sure that Pineiro spoke to students without intimidating them. While we cannot know what she was thinking, each answer she has provided as to her mindset at this moment suggests that she was more concerned with how she would be perceived than she was with helping the young people that are under her protection. It seems that her excuse for everything amounts to “it was an impossible choice,” but this is spin meant to hide (at best) cowardice and (at worst) complicity.

Townsend Harris High School students deserve a principal that will effectively guide and support the literal future leaders of this country. A culture of intimidation and toxicity is anathema to the stated principles of the school. Unfortunately, despite repeated claims to be innocent of creating a culture of intimidation at this school and others, Principal Jahoda looks all too comfortable in such a climate. The evidence is right there in the video.  If Principal Jahoda is installed as the permanent principal, I hope to see students out there in the hallways, reminding her that this culture has no place at Townsend Harris.