The Elephant (and Donkey) in the Classroom

Tempers flare in Sag Harbor’s cat hat brawl

This wasn’t just any old Facebook jibber-jabber. It had to do with feminism, with Sag Harbor School District residents divided about President Trump, with so-called pussy hats being renamed cat hats, and with First Amendment rights and social media zeal. And before Sag Harborites could say grab ’em by the cat, a communal mud-slinging campaign broke loose on Facebook, with “she-said, she-said” details that made it from local and regional newspapers all the way to NBC4, News 12, and NPR.

As with any hot topic, there are two sides. Which one is good and which one is bad depends on whom you speak with. Or, whose Facebook page you visit.

Feminists United is an after-school club started by a group of high school students at Pierson Middle-High School. On Feb. 13, they held a fund-raiser at the school selling the ubiquitous anti-Trump pink hats to benefit the Retreat, a  shelter for victims of domestic violence in East Hampton. The group had already replaced the word “pussy” with the more demure “cat” to satisfy school administrators, who apparently felt it necessary to shield the middle schoolers who share the building.

The brouhaha began when a Pierson parent, Janice D’Angelo, protested, on Facebook, the sale of the hats at the school, saying politics should not enter the classroom. Furthermore, she said, she was irked because, despite the new name, the hats would forever be linked with a vulgarity. Ms. D’Angelo, whose Facebook page has a “Vote Trump” image on it, said the hats represented very negative political ideology.

The president of Feminists United, Natalie Sepp, a 16-year-old, responded with an Instagram post deriding Ms. Angelo’s opinion and using a few vulgar words of her own. Pandemonium ensued on Facebook. 

Ms. D’Angelo and her supporters attacked the 16-year-old, her club, and her motives, and continued to voice strong opposition to politics being taken into school. Furthermore, in a phone interview, Ms. D’Angelo alleged that the girls in Feminists United were unable to have conceived of the idea to sell the hats on their own.

 “They were clearly brainwashed and indoctrinated by their parents’ political views,” Ms. D’Angelo said. She also posted on Facebook that the girls’ “vile” reaction to heroutspokenness and opinion was proof that “groups like these . . . spew hatred, divisiveness, and community destruction.”

“Agree with you 1,000 percent . . . ,” posted one Facebook friend of Ms. D’Angelo’s. Another wrote, “They will always and automatically try and point the finger in another direction. . . . I believe it starts w/the upbringing.”

In the other camp is Laura Perrotti, the mother of the 16-year-old at the center of the feud. According to Ms. Perrotti, “the girls never had a political agenda. All they wanted to do was raise money for charity. Their club tackles many female-related issues, L.G.B.T. rights, and domestic and sexual abuse.” She called Feminists United an apolitical group.

Supporting Ms. Perrotti is another Pierson parent who posted on Facebook, “I watched with pride as [the girls] wore their pussy hats (on NBC4!) in clear defiance of the ignorance that surrounds us in this country and in our town of Sag Harbor.”

Ultimately, the members of Feminists United did not want to politicize their cause and agreed, after consulting the school principal, to stop selling the hats at school. Despite confirmation from the district superintendent, Katy Graves, that the girls decided to stop selling the hats at school on their own, certain First Amendment issues remained murky.

In a recent interview on NPR, the authors of “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, advocate for an educational environment in which young people learn to deliberate about political questions. Ms. Hess is dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Ms. McAvoy is the program director of the Center for Ethics and Education there, following a career as a social studies teacher. 

In the interview, the authors acknowledged that “introducing political issues into the classroom is pedagogically challenging and raises ethical dilemmas.” Yet they believe schools are and ought to be political places, though not partisan ones.

All this is easier said than done. In today’s highly polarized society, and with the minefield of social media at one’s fingertips, students and parents more often than not seem to find it difficult to express their views respectfully. Personal missives, in 140 characters or less, are emanating from the highest office so it follows that they are happening in small towns as well.

Reconciliation between the Sag Harbor factions seems a long way off. Both sides have reported receiving threats. Ms. D’Angelo said she had an anonymous phone call warning that her Main Street business would be “destroyed.” 

Ms. Perrotti said she received such a barrage of nasty texts and late night phone calls that she has notified the police and hired a lawyer. She said she is becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of her family, adding, “These people continue to attack my daughter’s character. She’s a good person and was only trying to help those less fortunate.”