'Privilege' and Representation at Staten Island High Schools

How an assistant principal’s dogwhistle post highlights systemic flaws in education

'Privilege' and Representation at Staten Island High Schools

New Dorp Assistant Principal Deborah Morse-Cunningham received national news coverage in June after sharing a racist and classist post on her Facebook page. Although not explicitly referring to race, the post shared by Morse-Cunningham invokes welfare stereotypes that have been historically directed towards Black people. Nearly 35,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Assistant Principal’s immediate removal.

A screenshot of Assistant Principal Deborah Morse-Cunningham's Facebook post reading "What is privilege?... Privilege is wearing $200 sneakers when you've never had a job. Privilege is wearing $300 Beats headphones while living on public assistance. Privilege is having a Smartphone with a Data plan which receive no bill for. Privilege is living in public subsidized housing where you don't have a water bill, where rising property taxes and rents and energy costs have absolutely no effect on the amount of food you can put on your table. Privilege is the ability to go march against, and protest against anything that triggers you, without worrying about calling out of work and the consequences that accompany such behavior."
Morse-Cunningham's Facebook post from June 2020

Soon after Morse-Cunningham’s post gained public attention, the Equity Alliance of Staten Island (EASI) penned an open letter emphasizing that, “the racial tension that exists on Staten Island is not new.” The collective’s letter goes on to say, “most damaging is that these are accepted practices and a way of life in our schools causing horrendous educational injustices and failures throughout our school system.”

On July 2, EASI held a virtual press conference condemning the post and providing a platform for students and parents of color to express their concerns. During the conference, TJ Butler, a New Dorp High School student who graduated this June, said, “When you look at the island, there is not a lot of African Americans going to New Dorp.” Only ten percent of New Dorp’s student body is Black.

“Being a resident of Park Hill, people consider Park Hill the projects or the hood, it felt [Cunningham-Morris’s post] was kind of directed to me,” he said.

Mya, age 18, a Port Richmond High School graduate.
Mya Bishop, 18, attended the EASI virtual conference.

Mya Bishop, 18, a Port Richmond High School graduate, asserted that although race wasn’t brought up, it was clear who the post was aimed at. “It frightens me that people who are so adept at creating these dog whistles are the same people who are in charge of the curriculum that is taught in schools,” she added.

Assistant Principals, like Cunningham-Morris, are traditionally responsible for leading curricula development in schools. Her content specialty, English as a New Language, is a subject area in which educators receive training in cross-cultural competencies. In addition, as an overall educational strategy, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) employs what is called Culturally Responsive-Sustained Education (CR-SE). CR-SE's main tenants require schools to “be aware of past and present forms of bias and oppression” and use curricula that “honor and reflect students’ diversity” and “connect learning to students’ lives and identities”. According to the department’s website , “Numerous studies across the country show that CR-SE increases student participation, attendance, grade point averages, graduation rates, civic engagement, self-image, and critical thinking skills.”

Despite the DOE’s outlined educational strategy and teacher training in place, NYC public schools continually fail to provide students of color culturally responsive educations. An analysis of 2020 summer reading lists from 11 of the 26 largest high schools in the city revealed overrepresentation of white authors compared to student demographics. New Dorp High School’s summer reading list was the most egregious; 90 percent of the authors on the school’s list are white, although the student population is only 52 percent white.

“There is an active effort to deny kids an education about the systemic racism that they face,” Bishop said. “There is an active effort to omit, gloss over, and rewrite history to prevent students from making connections to modern issues and taking direct actions to make changes.”

Like New Dorp High School, a majority of American schools teach white-dominated curricula, yet during a September White House press conference President Donald Trump remarked, “Left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools”.

He specifically referenced schools’ use of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project from the New York Times, which centers the consequences of slavery on American society and is named after the year that the first slave ship arrived in America.

“This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom,” Trump said.

As a direct counter, President Trump has formed the 1776 Commission, so that “Our heroes will never be forgotten” -- even though the Revolution is already universally taught at American schools. Trump also issued an executive order banning federal agencies and contractors from providing diversity and inclusion training to employees that contain “divisive concepts”, such as that “The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist”. As a result, some universities that receive federal funding have already followed suit.

Eagle Academy for Young Men student and member of Staten Island’s NAACP Youth Council, Quincy Baker, noted that Black voices are purposefully being suppressed during the current, critical movement in American history.

“[Morse-Cunningham’s] comments was trying to silence the voices of those who were fighting for equality for generations, and a way of trying to silence the voices of my generation who are on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said.

The reignition of the Black Lives Matter mass movement in 2020, spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, is considered the largest protest movement in United States history. Monumental protests have been held in every major American city as well as several small towns across the country. With over 1,800 participants, the Black Lives Matter protest held at the Conference House in June 2020 is thought to be the largest protest to have ever taken place on the Island.

“One of the things that [Morse-Cunningham] said regarding marching that really stuck with me was having marching being a privilege is just concrete evidence of her ignorance.” Baker continued, “ Marching isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.”

More than four months have passed since Cunningham-Morris’s post, and she is still employed by the DOE.

“The words ‘zero tolerance’ are thrown around by the DOE for all of the different things that they expect that our young people are going to adhere to,” EASI member, Michael DeVito, said. “The standard that the DOE asks of their teachers is a bit laughable.”

A statement on behalf of the department from Spokesperson Daniel Filson noted that, “The DOE stands against racism and schools must be safe and inclusive learning environments."

"Teachers and staff have a responsibility to uphold those values, and the [New Dorp] principal reported this incident for investigation,” Filson added.

According to Filson, Morse-Cunningham remains on the job pending the outcome of the investigation. When contacted for comment New Dorp High School deferred to the NYC DOE. No details were provided on when the investigation was expected to conclude.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Quincy Baker attends Curtis High School.

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