Southold School District

Southold BOE, parents discuss prom controversy with idea pitched to form diversity and inclusion committee

The Southold School District superintendent told concerned residents at a Board of Education meeting last Wednesday that this month’s uproar over a prom theme stemmed from a poor choice of words and selective editing of videotaped remarks made by an administrator to students.

Superintendent Anthony Mauro told parents that a video circulated throughout the community was a 33-second snippet from a 10-minute conversation that altered the intent behind the message a school administrator was attempting to deliver to students. He said the remarks were made after students posted memes edited to depict school employees as if they were dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire  and the administrator was trying to convey to students that you can be held responsible for posting such materials.

“The message was you’re responsible for things that you post online and it was actually a very meaningful and good lesson that was then taken by not meaningful and not good people and cut up to make it sound exactly the way you heard it,” Mr. Mauro told a parent who addressed the board about the incident.

The parent, Nick Antonucci, said he believed the district could do a better job of telling its version of events since the narrative in the community about the video is much different than what Mr. Mauro said at the meeting.

“I love Southold,” said Mr. Antonucci, whose daughter is a senior and has two older children who previously graduated from the district. “I’m proud of this district and it pained me, how I felt about what occurred.”

The district faced backlash after a staff member referred to this year’s junior prom as having a “southern plantation vibe” in an email to students. The event, initially billed as a “Southern Soiree,” sparked confusion among students over whether to dress in formal attire or cowboy boots and hats when it was unveiled earlier this month. In an attempt to clarify the theme, a staff member who heads the prom committee sent an email to students that described the venue, Royalton Farm in Mattituck, as having a “southern plantation vibe,” that would be similar to a “cotillion” ball where “elite southern young people” enter society. Southold students were later called into an assembly by the high school administration to discuss the prom theme and “proper use of social media.” The prom theme has since been changed to “An Evening At the Royalton.” 

In a brief video of the assembly obtained by the Suffolk Times, an administrator could be heard telling students that they “will be suspended or worse” if they share posts on the issue, adding that they “slander the school, slander our staff, slander our principal. It’s not right … This is serious.”

At last week’s meeting, school board member Scott Latham said he wished things had played out differently.

“We could have had a discussion about the word ‘plantation’ and how it might have affected a couple students, but it turned into a whirlwind of stupid,” he said of the way the controversy built.

Mr. Antonucci, who teaches history in both the Sachem School District and Suffolk Community College, where he said his focus is the study of race and ethnicities, suggested the district form a diversity, equity and inclusion committee and he encouraged school staff to take professional development classes related to celebrating diversity and inclusion. Mr. Antonucci said he serves on a similar staff committee formed more than a year ago in Sachem. 

School board president Paulette Ofrias said it’s a “fabulous idea.”

“We have to learn from it and we have to move on and we have to grow from it,” Ms. Ofrias said of this month’s incident. “I love the idea of a diversity, equity and inclusion committee. It’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard at a school board meeting in many years.”

Another district parent, Jacqueline Hubbard, who is Black, said her children are subjected to racist behavior and language by other students on a regular basis. She said that while she’s brought her concerns to administrators over the years, including more than once this school year, she hasn’t always been satisfied with how the incidents have been handled. Ms. Ofrias and Mr. Latham both thanked her for bringing her concerns to the board.

Ms. Ofrias said that while she is mostly proud of the district, which she has served for nearly 20 years, “there are times that I’m a little embarrassed and ashamed and tonight is one of those nights.” She said school board members aren’t always notified of disciplinary actions in the buildings.

“I’ve certainly learned a great deal this evening,” she said.

“It’s very sad what’s been happening to [your children] and I’ll apologize for that,” Mr. Latham added. “I’d like to see us do better.”