Racist incidents at New Fairfield High School call for culture ‘change’

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NEW FAIRFIELD — Incidents of racism in high school have students and staff worried, and some parents wonder if enough is being done to address the problem.

There have been at least three incidents since the fall, according to principal James D’Amico, who said investigations into each have been launched and families in the school community have been notified.

“Earlier this year we had graffiti in one of the bathrooms that had racist words in it,” he said. “A more recent thing was a social media post where someone used the N-word frequently.”

Another recent incident involved someone renaming their iPhone “to include the N-word” and attempting to play a video to other students, D’Amico said.

Although the Airdrop culprit has yet to be identified, school officials say the three incidents do not appear to be related.

“There are a lot of things in our culture that we need to change in high school,” said D’Amico, who became principal in 2019 – 25 years after graduating from New Fairfield High School.

Some parents, like Joliset Miller, aren’t convinced the school district is doing enough to fight racism and prevent future incidents from happening.

At Thursday’s board of education meeting, Miller said the district “has failed to provide a safe learning environment for students of color…especially in high school.”

According to Miller — who has two children in the district, including one in high school — there have been more incidents of racism than school officials say they are aware of.

“Our students of color have been called the N-word, threatened, having food thrown at them,” she said.

Although he doesn’t remember “overt racism” at school when he was a student, D’Amico said he was sure it was there.

“I’m not sure I was aware of it enough as a high school student – and as a white male I never had to pay attention to it,” he said.

As principal of his alma mater, however, D’Amico said his mission is to make the school a hate-free place where all students feel comfortable, welcome and included.

“We have a lot of work to do, and that work is really about being more provocatively anti-racist and anti-discriminatory to fight the negative forces in our school and our society,” he said. “It’s disappointing that these things are in the community, but we need to work against this to make all of our students feel good about coming to school.”

Nearly 80% of New Fairfield High School students are white, according to state data.

Parent concerns

Miller said it’s not just the incidents that concern her, but how the district seems to be handling them.

Miller said it was not enough to receive a message from the school acknowledging something had happened and saying something would be done.

“What’s the point… if they’ll be kept in the dark about the resolutions to the problems?” she says.

School officials say they try to be as transparent as possible, but student privacy laws prevent them from sharing certain information about disciplinary actions taken against students.

“We’re not good at this, but we’re working hard to close the loop and share with parents and community members what we’ve done and what action we’ve taken if things go wrong,” the official said. Superintendent Pat Cosentino.

After a school board member suggested that a lack of understanding of the ‘historical context’ of the N-word or its use in music could cause students to be confused and think there’s nothing wrong To say the N-word, Miller said school leaders should “be careful not to make excuses” for students old enough to learn more.

“The times it was used, especially in high school, were very intentional — to hurt, offend and belittle,” she said.

Miller said the district should not only keep families informed of the results of their investigations into racist and inappropriate behavior, but have a plan to make sure such incidents don’t happen again in the future.

Cosentino said the district is creating a zero-tolerance policy for racism, but she thinks solving the problem will take a broader community effort.

“It’s not just a school problem — it’s a community problem; it’s a family issue,” she says. “We need to start looking at what our students and children watch on their phones, the music they listen to, the impact of social media on their lives – we (schools) cannot do this alone.”

There were a few high-profile incidents of racism in New Fairfield just last year when the New Fairfield Volunteer Fire Department launched an investigation into one of its firefighters after he allegedly posted “inappropriate articles and offensive” on social media.

In 2009, a member of the Board of Education and Republican City Committee resigned following controversy surrounding a racially charged email he claimed he sent without knowing it contained a racial slur. .

Proactive and Restorative Practices

D’Amico said New Fairfield High School takes a “restorative practice” approach to addressing racism.

“It’s not just a matter of discipline,” he said. “It is also a question of culture, of openness and it is for all of us to learn to listen.”

D’Amico met with students of color to discuss their experiences and concerns, and he said it was eye-opening.

“I had a meeting on Tuesday, and it was one of the most intense, moving, impactful, inspiring and sad meetings I have ever been in in my 21 years of working with high school students,” said he told the school board on Thursday.

D’Amico said hearing their experiences and perspectives is a crucial step in making changes to ensure the emotional health and safety of all students.

“I don’t have the lived experience that our students of color have, so it’s really important for me to listen,” he said, noting that many said they “don’t have the impression of having a voice and sometimes not knowing who to speak to.”

“Students report hearing racist, sexist, discriminatory, mean language quite often,” D’Amico said. “For many of them, it dates back to when they were in elementary school…and it had a significant effect on their sense of belonging and acceptance.”

As part of the school’s restorative practice approach, D’Amico said a newly formed student equity action team is preparing to introduce a “No Room for Hate” pledge, that all students will be asked to sign.

“Our goal is for 100% of students to sign this pledge to facilitate conversation in our school and reinforce that there is no place for hate in any form,” he said.

The student equity action team was formed last year and is modeled after the district staff equity action team — the latter, D’Amico said, was created following an incident in the spring of 2020, involving a social media post “containing unacceptable terminology. ”

The dozen K-12 staff on the Staff Equity Action Team are preparing a guide on inclusive language for school district staff.

D’Amico said one of the things he’s learned from students of color is that language alone “can sometimes unintentionally shut people out.”

“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen, and so that’s something the K-12 staff are working on,” he said.

In addition to training high school staff on “the meaning of the covenant and how to support students who feel marginalized,” D’Amico said Derek Hall — a racial equity strategist and developmental coach — ​was brought up to talk about “having difficult conversations in the classroom” on the last professional development day.

D’Amico said working with Hall was “so impactful” that plans are underway to bring him back to meet different groups, including staff, parents and students.

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