Second student walkout at GHS, on sexism, was more disruptive than first, on racism

— Photo from Guilderland Police Facebook page

Sean Ralston’s wife pins on his badge in 2020 as his children and Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber look on. Superintendent Marie Wiles praised Ralston’s work as the resource officer for the Guilderland schools but said he is spread thin.

GUILDERLAND — On Wednesday, Nov. 9, some Guilderland High School students staged the second walkout in a month.

This one, involving 35 to 40 students, mostly females, was over concerns about sexual harassment.

The first one, On Oct. 17, involving about 100 students, followed an incident at an Oct. 14 football game where a few students who were part of a large cheering section — all dressed in black for a “blackout” theme — painted their faces black.

The Guilderland School Board at its next meeting, on Nov. 15, will discuss the possibility of having a second school resource officer. 

The first walkout was more organized, Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise on Friday. After students had their say, they returned to their classes at the end of the period, Wiles said.

Wiles described students in the first walkout as “passionate for sure” and called listening to them “a very intense experience” but she also said those students were respectful.

Some of the students protesting on Nov. 9, however, were disruptive and disrespectful, Wiles said.

“I had many adults in the building on Wednesday morning who were terrified, …” Wiles said. “They were afraid. I could see it in their eyes.”

When she talked to those faculty members and administrators afterward, Wiles said, she heard comments like, “That scared me” and “I’m still shaking.”

Asked what the student complaints were, Wiles said they shared experiences “where someone would be looking at their chest, looking at their behind, making inappropriate comments to them, making them feel uncomfortable by the way they look at the students.”

Wiles stressed, “I am not discounting those experiences, just like I didn’t discount the experiences described to us at the first protest where people are using the N-word or making those monkey sounds….

“What they were complaining about is legitimate and should not happen, cannot happen. We can’t tolerate racial remarks, sexist, misogynistic remarks.”

Wiles sees the students as “sending a wake-up call that these things are happening and they feel like nothing happens as a result.”

She stressed that, if such incidents are brought to the attention of an adult at school, they will be investigated. And, if they are shown to be true, she said, “We’re going to take action.”

Wiles also said that, in society at large, because so many sexist remarks or actions cannot be documented, “Many women have been just conditioned to ignore it or let it go. And that creates a terrible environment at any level in any kind of organization or institution or place of employment.”

She went on, “It’s frustrating to many women and people of color or to anyone who’s marginalized in the larger society when these inappropriate things happen and it doesn’t feel like they’re addressed and ended …. When people are frustrated like that, they sometimes want to take matters into their own hands, which only makes things worse.”


Wednesday’s walkout

The school resource officer, Sean Ralston — a Guilderland Police officer stationed at the high school but serving all seven of the district’s schools — had seen a message on social media Tuesday night, asking students to walk out the next morning.

Three police officers were on hand Wednesday morning as well as numerous staff to listen to student concerns, Wiles said. Students opened the school’s front doors — which is against security protocols — to let students out and back in again, Wiles said.

And, when adults were finished listening to the students’ complaints and asked them to return to class, the students refused. This formed a blockage in the school lobby as other students, not involved in the protest, were trying to get to their classes.

“We just can’t have that,” said Wiles of the safety breach as well as the disruptive behavior.

While she said she could not give individual descriptions, Wiles said the tone was disrespectful with some students, for example, not calling faculty by their titles — such as Dr. So-and-so or Mr. Such-and-such — but rather by their last names.

“We want students to tell us what’s on their minds,” Wiles said, noting that the high school’s principal, Michael Piscitelli, has set up sessions so students can air their grievances.

She stressed that sexual harassment will not be tolerated nor will racist behaviors.

“I admire students who are willing and able to advocate for things important to them,” said Wiles. “The flip side is you need to do it safely.”

She said that the district is dealing with “many more behavioral challenges” in all grades, from kindergarten through 12th grade. “It’s just a change of behavior in young people from the pandemic,” she said.

Wiles sent an email on Nov. 9 to “GHS Families,” describing the walkout because, she said, she wanted to “put everyone on fair notice that we will take disciplinary measures.”

“It is imperative that the rules that are in place be followed by all, for the safety of all,” Wiles wrote in the email. “The district will not tolerate students missing class and will not allow disrespectful and insubordinate behavior. Going forward, such actions will be subject to consequences in accordance with our Code of Conduct.”

Asked what those discipline measures would be, Wiles said, starting with “the gentlest,” students who miss class will be marked with an unexcused absence.

If another walkout is organized, Wiles said, students need to follow the direction of adults. “I can’t allow people to feel unsafe within our school,” she said.

“I wanted to alert families that I’m not going to silence your student, your children, if they have something to say,” Wiles explained about her email. “But I am going to ask that they are respectful of the adults, the adults who are working hard to provide a safe learning environment, because ultimately that’s what we are — a learning environment.”

Striking a balance,” Wiles said of listening to student concerns while maintaining safety, “is very difficult. It’s very difficult.”



The Guilderland schools have had a series of school resource officers, known as SROs, since the end of the last century.

Officers were originally posted in both Guilderland High School and Farnsworth Middle School although budget cuts caused the district to reduce those two posts to one, shared throughout the district.

In March, the Guilderland School Board approved its first contract for a school resource officer at which time Wiles said the goal “is more about prevention and building relationships,” rather than making arrests.

On Friday, Wiles said that Guilderland’s police chief, Daniel McNally, “has said that, if the district was interested in a second SRO, he would be willing to assign an officer for the balance of this year without additional cost.”

A district-wide safety committee has had a subcommittee studying the matter. A presentation will be made at the school board’s next meeting, on Nov. 15.

“The role of the SRO is really meant to be proactive, a resource for the students,” said Wiles. “The SRO is there to build relationships with students to, again, not be a police officer policing the halls, but rather another trusted adult who’s a resource, someone that students can go to when they need assistance.”

Wiles praised the current SRO, Ralston, as “masterful.” “He makes it a point to connect with students,” she said. “Many do feel comfortable going to him to tell him their problems.”

She also said, “Sean is one guy in a high school of 1,500 kids and I’ve got six other buildings so he is spread amazingly thin … and cannot be in all places at all times.”

There have been a few recent incidents of “milking” in the high school cafeteria. The genesis for the trend is from TikTok, Wiles said of the social media platform. “Someone will go in and buy a carton of milk and dump it on a student — I think we’ve had two, maybe three instances of it this year — so it is a thing.”

The school cafeterias have monitors and administrators on hand, Wiles said, and milking is treated as a violation of the school’s code of conduct. Often, she said, there are ongoing conflicts between two students so administrators will rearrange schedules to keep them apart from each other and they also develop behavior plans.

But kids are resourceful, Wiles said. “There’s a lot more students than there are administrators, than adults. So they get around them sometimes and do these things … and then we’re down the road of school discipline.”


Call for support

“This is an unbelievably challenging time for our community, for society …,” Wiles concluded. “I find that this school year has been even more so than the worst of COVID because we’re trying to be back to normal when no one really is back to normal.

“We’re still in recovery from a traumatic experience. So I just want people to have patience with us and support our efforts to get Guilderland High School back to a place where the main focus is teaching and learning …

“Right now, we’ve got some distractions and we need to pull together as a community and respect one another — put our racist and sexist ideas off to the side and focus on teaching, learning, and respecting one another.”

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