School board defends handling of fight

State police arrested a 15-year-old Cooperstown student earlier this month after responding to reports of a fight between two students at the school May 30.

Cooperstown Board of Education President Marcy S. Birch defended the school’s handling of the incident at the board’s Wednesday, June 19, meeting, citing confidentiality rules in response to criticism that the school hadn’t been forthcoming.

Troopers did not release the names of the students involved because of their juvenile status, but the student arrested June 3 was charged with third-degree assault, an A misdemeanor, according to Aga Dembinksa, public information officer for Troop C.

One student suffered scrapes caused by contact with a rug, but a scrape does not constitute assault, per penal law; it constitutes harassment, for which a juvenile cannot be arrested, according to Dembinska.

The victim had not received medical attention in the immediate aftermath of the incident when troopers responded, but was later diagnosed with a concussion by a family physician, Dembinska said.

Dembinska said troopers consulted with Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl and arrested the student the same day paperwork was filed.

Because the student is underage, the case will be handled by Otsego County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The student was issued a ticket to appear in family court at a later date, according to Dembinska.

In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, a series of screenshots detailed an email addressed to members of Positive Action Cooperstown that alleged the situation escalated into physical violence after the alleged assailant taunted the victim with homophobic slurs while at least one other student recorded the incident on a cell phone.

There is no mention of such an exchange documented in the police report, according to Dembinksa.

The author of the email, whose name was not disclosed in the posted screenshots, decried school administrators for a perceived lack of transparency and timeliness in their response and encouraged members of the public to attend a Wednesday meeting of the Cooperstown school board.

The post also alleged that the student received a five-day out-of-school suspension and was allowed to return to school on the second day to take a Regents exam.

The recipients of the email were also not disclosed in the Facebook post, and several members of the group declined requests for comment.

Birch opened the school board meeting with a prepared statement on behalf of the board.

“The district cannot trample on the civil rights of students and confidential nature of any of the many disciplinary procedures involving students,” she said. The district has clear instructions from the state and the federal government regarding something called FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), directing us in no uncertain terms to be confidential in what we say and in what we imply about students. Making statements during times of specific disciplinary proceedings falls into the category of breaking confidentiality and implying things that may or may not be accurate.”

Birch described several of the district’s recent and ongoing initiatives to promote diversity, inclusivity, civility and wellness and combat bullying. District superintendent William Crankshaw offered to make public a document detailing the school’s current procedures, policies and programs to support the initiatives.

“It pained me that nothing was said afterward. I feel there must have been a way we could have communicated without breaking confidences or doing anything illegal,” said Elsie Rhodes, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cooperstown. “We know the quotes about people who are silent, and it feels to some that it was complicitous. I know we all care about this community, and our lives intersect in so many ways — that’s the gift and the burden of a small community — and I pray fervently we can find a way to protect the most vulnerable.”

“Students that aren’t loved at home — LGBTQ members, people who are kicked out of their homes or who would not be loved the same way if they weren’t gay — come to school to be loved. It’s really important to show the students here who don’t feel loved at home that they’re loved at school, that they can learn, that they can be equal,” said Sadie Lincoln, an 11th-grader at Laurens Central School. “If you aren’t loved at home, you come here to be loved, and it’s really important to show people that to LGBTQ students and anybody else who feels they’ve been discriminated against that they’re loved at school.”

“I don’t think our community should ignore teachable moments. I know it’s hard when life is good,” said Tracey Lippitt, the mother of Wesley Lippitt, a Cooperstown alumnus who was shot by fellow student Anthony Pacherille Jr., who was charged with a hate crime and convicted of second-degree attempted murder in April 2010 when both boys were 16.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.