It began with an NYPD K-9 graduation 13 months ago that included a German shepherd named Vale, in memory of a Transit Detective murdered in the line of duty in 1976 at the age of 33.
Among those he left behind was a 20-day-old daughter, Carla Caccavale, who 43 years later decided that a sweatshirt with the dog's name (pronounced "Valley") and an inscription on its right sleeve, "In honor of Detective George Caccavale," above an NYPD Detective shield, would be a nice commemoration.
A Phenomenon in Pelham
"It was meant for family members after the dog's graduation," she said in a Nov. 17 phone interview, but the 13 she ordered initially proved so popular among friends and neighbors in the Westchester town of Pelham, where she remained after her father's death, that she took another 150 orders and "delivered them door-to-door," with all proceeds divided between the Detectives' Endowment Association Widows and Children Fund and the Retired Police K9 Foundation.
But last month, Ms. Caccavale said, the fraught emotions involving the police and people of color led the Pelham School District to request that school staff stop wearing Blue Line masks. Soon after that, she learned that the sweatshirt paying tribute to her late father had also been banned on school grounds by District Superintendent Cheryl Champ.
It wasn't the tribute to George Caccavale that was deemed objectionable, but rather the thin blue line flag that adorned the left sleeve of the sweatshirt. That flag, created to honor cops who died in the line of duty, has been criticized by Black Lives Matter and others who called it a symbol of far-right-wing groups.
In an Oct. 27 email to staff under the heading "political speech," Ms. Champ wrote, "It is more important than ever for staff to demonstrate political neutrality so that we can assist our students in maintaining an environment of fair and balanced civil discourse."
Late on the afternoon of Election Day, she sent a follow-up email explaining why she had made apparel containing the thin blue line flag off limits while "allowing Vote shirts with the names of black individuals who have been killed by police to be worn" by both students and staff.
'Perceived as Threatening'
After writing, "I want to unequivocally state that we support our police and their families," Superintendent Champ said, "At the same time, we must be mindful of ensuring that our schools are places that are physically and emotionally safe for our students. Like many symbols whose meaning has been co-opted over time, the thin blue line flag has increasingly been perceived by students to be threatening in nature, causing them to feel unsafe within our schools."
Her email concluded, "I recognize that not everyone will agree with these decisions, but please know that they were made solely with the best interests of our students at heart and were never intended to be divisive."
Whatever her intent, the email sparked a furious backlash. Ms. Caccavale—whose four children, ages 9 to 13, are students in the Pelham School District's elementary and middle schools, was stunned that the design of the sweatshirt could be perceived as "a symbol of white supremacy."
DEA President Paul DiGiacomo was outraged, particularly because besides the "Vote" shirts that he viewed as explicitly political, the wearing of both BLM shirts and apparel with a clenched black fist that was the symbol of the Black Power movement were permitted through Election Day, before Ms. Champ made them off limits as well, according to Ms. Caccavale.
Especially Hard to Take
In a Nov. 9 letter to the Pelham Schools Superintendent, Mr. DiGiacomo noted that Detective Caccavale had been murdered while working a second job at the Van Dam Check Cashing Corporation in Long Island City, Queens, and that his assailants knew he was a cop because the 11-year veteran of the old Transit Police kept an NYPD placard in his car window.
"The men who shot and killed him were later discovered to be members of the Black Liberation Army," the DEA leader wrote. "They were caught and convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But no amount of time in prison could ever bring Det. Caccavale back to his grieving family."
He went on to take sharp exception to "your decision to ban any graphic or logo that honors the profession of policing or memorializes members of the service who have been killed in the line of duty. These are personal and deeply felt family memorials that you've somehow turned into 'threatening political speech.'
"At the same time," Mr. DiGiacomo continued, you've decided that the 1960s symbol of a "Black Power" fist is not political, and that listing the names of people who died during the commission of a crime, being questioned by police, or while resisting arrest isn't political, either, and are permissible to wear."
He went on to write, "For the record, you are not 'protecting' students by perverting views about policing in America or turning your students into cop-haters."
Champ Not Talking
Ms. Caccavale, asked whether Ms. Champ had spoken to her personally about the decision, said the District Superintendent had emailed her asking if she would be open to "a brief conversation." When she replied that it depended on whether the Superintendent had changed her mind about banning the sweatshirt, "She reiterated her decision stands," she said.
Requests for comment from Superintendent Champ about whether she risked creating the perception among students that certain types of speech on one side of an issue could be ruled unacceptable while controversial statements on the other side were permissible brought this response from a school spokesman: "The Pelham Public Schools is committed to creating a safe and respectful environment for all of our students. As an employer, the district has a longstanding policy with regards to the limits of political activities in the school environment and is working to implement it consistently. We have never wavered in our support for law enforcement, especially our local police, and appreciate all they do to keep us safe."
The Pelham Examiner, which published the first story about the clash, also printed comments from readers that showed a majority of them opposed it.
While one woman supporting the ban of the thin blue line flag wrote, "There is no place for divisive symbols in an institution of learning," another stated, "Supporting the many honorable men and women who wore the blue uniform and gave their lives to protect others should be something that every American should not just be allowed to do, but should be cheered on and held in respect."
'A Level of Exclusion'
One student at Pelham Memorial H.S. wrote that while "Detective Caccavale should be honored...the voices of white students have been prioritized over students of color for much too long...There is a level of exclusion when students of color's experiences are belittled by being told that it 'sucks to suck' and their concerns are invalid."
Ms. Caccavale said that "what surprised me was the hypocrisy here." It grew even worse, she said, when the situation got some publicity, which led some of Superintendent Champ's defenders to question whether she was really giving all the proceeds from sweatshirt sales to the two police charities.
"They're out of ammo in terms of how they can dispute the hypocrisy" was her explanation for the personal attacks without any evidence to support them.
"We live and breathe this line-of-duty commitment," she said of children and spouses of officers who are killed on the job.
'It's Been Devastating'
When it was suggested that it must be particularly hard to be under fire for paying tribute to a father who was killed before she could really know him, she struggled to contain her emotions, saying, "It has been devastating, and to have them attacking my intentions is really hard."
What made it easier to bear, she said, were messages like the one she received that morning from an NYPD officer thanking her and writing, "It's amazing what one person can do to be a force for change and good and positive energy."
"That's why I haven't stopped," Ms. Caccavale said.
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