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Teachers are being investigated over allegedly racist text messages they sent about their students

A view of School 17 from the outside.
Max Schulte
Enrico Fermi School 17 serves children up to eighth grade in Rochester's west side.

Six teachers at School 17 in Rochester have been placed on leave and face firing for allegedly racist texts about their students, Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small said in a statement Friday.

“I am horrified at the racist and demeaning references and language used to describe children... our children!” Myers-Small wrote in a statement. “Our scholars have experienced tremendous trauma, specifically over the past two years."

The statement said staff may be fired for the text messages.

Parent Katiria Lopez said the incident took place last Friday, but she only learned about it on Tuesday.

"My daughter told me that students were advised not to share the incident with their parents because the school needed to deal with it first,” Lopez said.

According to Lopez, a teacher gave the students their phone to make a TikTok video. She said the students saw a group chat notification that mentioned a student by name.

Lopez said that's when students discovered a thread of “hateful, threatening and overall disgusting” text messages.

“My daughter told me that she went to her favorite teacher. I'm assuming this was before she ended up seeing the message he put out because he was part of it, too," Lopez said. "And he was like, ‘Don't tell your parents.’”

School 17 is a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school on Orchard Street.

In a series of screenshots of the text messages, five of the six teachers are identified: Abby Bardanis, Jorge Degro, Samantha DiNoto, Derek Kelly and Alicia Renner. In a Friday afternoon news conference, Myers-Small confirmed those identities.

The sixth teacher's name did not appear, and Myers-Small did not identify the person.

In her statement, Myers-Small said words matter, promising zero tolerance for abusive language.

"Behaviors and mindsets that humiliate and devalue our scholars and their families is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," she wrote.

At the news conference, Myers-Small repeated those words and added more perspective.

“(Students) have experienced the trauma of adverse childhood experiences ... of the pandemic, and ... of Daniel Prude and seeing all that unfolded in our city," she told reporters. "It's important for all of us to know that words and language certainly do matter.”

In a livestreamed video on Facebook, city school board member Beatriz LeBron said she is disappointed in how the incident was initially handled. She expects it will be handled differently going forward but wouldn’t give details.

“No adult, no educated adult, should be talking about our kids in the way that these messages are being reflected,” LeBron said. “If you don’t want to work with our kids, nobody is forcing you to.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.