Cameron Berg is a sophomore at Wilton High School. He submitted this opinion piece as a follow-up to WHS Drug Search: From The Student’s Bloodshot Eyes, an op-ed article we published Monday, which inspired a lot of reaction from students and parents. After you read it, be sure to read the editor’s note at the end.

It was impossible to be a Wilton High School student during the past few days without taking a stance on GOOD Morning Wilton’s publication of WHS Drug Search: From The Student’s Bloodshot Eyes. (If you have not already read it, I highly recommend you do so before considering this response.) Many noticed the increasing divide between students and parents on this issue. I’d like this editorial to be a vehicle for mutual understanding of both parties’ perspectives.

It’s critical to note the difference between the concerns of my peers and the focus of the article. The author’s argument about the waning trust between students and officials is insightful; her vision on how we approach a conversation about drug use opens the door to necessary change. It was a well-written, cogent editorial that tackles the problems with the way we address drug use at the teenage level. Unfortunately (but, to me, not unjustifiably), the substance of the piece was overshadowed by outrage over factual disputes. On the part of the student audience, not acknowledging the actual point of the article – an interesting and substantive one, at that – was admittedly a mistake.

Nonetheless, troubled by some assertions that I believed required more investigation, I sat down with WHS principal Robert O’Donnell, who had this to say:

“I am not aware of nor have I witnessed such instances [of] students smoking marijuana in hallways or the library, nor have we found or detected cocaine or heroin in the building; there have been no confirmed cases of cocaine or heroin use at WHS. I am aware of recent developments to date involving heroin in our and neighboring communities, and I find it concerning. I’m interested in taking any measures we can to keep our students healthy and safe, to keep drugs out of our school community.”

Yes, it is possible that our administration could simply be unaware of such instances, and it would be ludicrous to maintain that absolutely none of our peers are guilty of drug use in school. As a community, though, we must discuss the degree and severity to which such offenses occur, ideas that many of my WHS peers feel have been exaggerated (echoed in the recent Wilton Youth Council student survey on substance use and abuse). So, record cleared, right? Can we go back to complaining about unweighted grades now? Hold your confetti.

I’m not writing to “clear the record.” This is an imperfect analogy. Unlike physical information that can be erased and revised to one’s content, the reputation that we assign to Wilton High School cannot be wiped clear and made perfect; we are human, and we tend to maintain our biases once they’re established. We now must rectify, not erase. Maybe a more appropriate phrase to use in this situation would be “redeem the record.”

My peers used Facebook to engage in the 21st-century model of an angry mob, armed to the teeth with our modern pitchforks and torches of sardonic, unapologetic attitudes. Did some overstep their bounds? Yes. Did virtually all comments express indignation at what they saw as the tarnishing of our school’s reputation? You bet.

“I think many people wanted to make it clear that Wilton is not a drug-infested school [although] some students went too far,” writes junior Ian Sanders. Sophomore Henry Greene adds: “The majority of comments were not targeting [the author] and meant no harm, but were meant to expand the debate that the article began.” Junior JP Mourier spoke powerfully and plainly: “We have a right to criticize and refute rumors that make us look bad.”

Those who interpreted the student response collectively as bullying didn’t get it. While GMW’s editor began to reconcile the two camps, her comments did not address the root of our discontent. The forcefulness of my peers’ statements emerges from an underlying frustration, and what those outside of the WHS community seem to miss is that this frustration isn’t about one article or one factual error; it’s about a trend.

A year ago, NBC Connecticut aired this:  “More Swastikas Found at Wilton High School. It’s the second one found at the school in as many weeks. But according to News 12, it doesn’t stop there.” Then, more recently, in regard to recent SBAC test scores, negativity and pessimism flourished on social media, in places like Facebook’s Wilton 412, multiple articles in the Wilton Bulletin, Patch.com, and more.

We must now add, WHS Drug Search: From The Student’s Bloodshot Eyes, not only in the content of the article, but also the residual comments (from parents and students) that portray my peers as bullies. I fear that such depictions of Wilton High School through the lens of local and statewide media might mislead individuals unfamiliar with WHS into thinking that they were reading about a drug-infested, unintelligent, xenophobic community on the verge of collapsing in on itself. Such implications are what’s objectionable; to us, this latest article simply may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

For three quarters of the year, I am my school. Along with so many others, I work extremely hard:  I take my classes seriously, I participate in co-curricular activities, I play a sport with a jersey that bears the Warrior logo, I represent my class as its student body president. My teachers are wonderful and my friends are awesome. I’m proud of my school. For a community with which I have been associated for only five quarters, I have grown increasingly rankled by casual criticism of WHS and of those inside its halls and classrooms.

During discussions about WHS with friends and peers from nearby towns, I don’t want their assessment to contain references to drugs in school which I haven’t used, swastikas I haven’t carved, or tests I haven’t failed. The character of my peers and the reputation of the high school are entirely interwoven; should the latter be (or appear to be) lacking, the former will most definitely suffer.

And Wilton not only faces external glares and snickers:  we now engage in more critical and pessimistic introspection. In short, we are having an identity crisis. When I look back at my sisters’ classes of 2014 and 2011, it disappoints me to notice the most obvious difference:  they were simply more proud to be Warriors. And most frustratingly, such apathy originates not from the character of my peers, but from the constant, stinging reminders of our school’s supposed missteps. Reputations are fragile; let’s do our best to keep ours intact.

Every weekday from 8:20 a.m. until 2:50 p.m., the building at 395 Danbury Rd. houses some of the most creative, intelligent, compassionate people in the state, if not the country. We’ve been getting a bad rap, and we’re getting tired of it. Sentiments of frustration arise when we’re misrepresented, and that’s okay. The controversy surrounding the article is about more than drugs in school. It’s about the fragility of reputation, the danger of over-generalization, and the ability to appreciate unfamiliar or seemingly unwelcome points of view.

This isn’t just a lesson for high schoolers; any attacks on our school’s reputation impacts all of us. This applies to voters and board members who decide how much money is allotted to our school; this applies to our peers in neighboring towns; to upperclassmen, this applies to college admissions officers who, in their powerful hands, hold our future. Our eyes are not bloodshot; they’re shining with an energy and tenacity that reflects the very spirit of what it means to be a Wilton Warrior. For our own sake, let us show our pride.

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Editor’s Note:  One of the reasons I decided to run this follow-up is that it shows the original column, “WHS Drug Search,” has sparked the kind of conversation it was intended to. It’s gotten the kids talking to one another, and it’s gotten kids talking with their parents. If only I had a dollar for every time in the last 72 hours that a Wilton parent told me, “My kids and I were talking about that drugs-in-school article you ran. They told me…” Not only would I be sporting a pocket full of cash, but I’d be richer for knowing that we’ve gotten kids and parents to talk about a topic like drug and alcohol use. 

Hopefully, what we’ve published this week helps kids and parents get a little more perspective about each other and about how we each think.

I have a couple observations about Cameron’s piece. It’s fascinating that from a teen’s perspective, the Wilton Youth Council survey about student drug use supported the assertion that not as many kids are using illegal substances as the first column seemed to imply. In contrast, we saw the same survey as evidence that there’s still significant amounts of drug and alcohol use among Wilton teens.

I was also intrigued by how the conversation happened, and how the kids saw it. According to Cameron, the kids were less likely to see the comments about the story as harsh, and that the underlying frustration was more important than how the message was delivered. For adults, the delivery is just as important as the message, and they saw it as bullying and an unfair attack. Aside from remarks that were clearly out of line (and removed), the conversation was still harder have when the delivery was toned with sarcasm and vitriol. Wouldn’t it be great if all our debates leaned more toward, “I disagree…” instead of, “You’re a liar!” And that includes the debates happening all around Wilton these days, not just this one, with Wiltonians of all ages.

We are all wiser when we recognize that the finer a brush that’s used to paint the picture, the more nuanced that picture is. The same is true whether it’s people outside looking in, or those on the inside doing a bit of self-examination. We talked about it in our first editor’s note, about examining our own editorial processes, and finding where we can improve the nuances. Along those same lines, I’d pose this question to Cameron and friends:  Have all the articles about WHS been only negative? We’ve been running a category called “Kids and Teens Caught Doing GOOD” since the first day we started publishing. Clicking this link will show you more than 300 stories tagged with that category, many of which are about the kids at Wilton High School and their incredible actions and accomplishments. We much prefer telling those stories, but we wouldn’t be doing our job and painting a more nuanced picture if that’s the only side we told. Just as the kids wouldn’t be able to appreciate all the multitude of good they do without on occasion taking stock of where they’ve stumbled in the past to learn where they can also do better. And just because you spot a place where you can improve, doesn’t mean you aren’t proud of who you are, either.

In the spirit of having the conversation move forward, I’d like to invite the students of Wilton High School to be their own best PR people. Tell us your stories of accomplishments rather than let them be told about you. Use your voices and words to share your potential and how you’re going about realizing it. We’re starting a regular feature called “GOOD Stuff Happens,” and we’d love to continue showing all the GOOD stuff that’s happening at Wilton High School (and everywhere else in Wilton, for that matter). 

What a great opportunity for us all to be proud. 

⎯ Heather Borden Herve