Late yesterday afternoon (Monday., Nov. 14), parents of Wilton High School students received an email from WHS principal, Dr. Robert O’Donnell. In it he told parents about an incident that occurred during the most recent home football game, last Friday evening, Nov. 11, when a group of students in the student section of the bleachers was heard to chant, “Build the Wall!”
President-elect Donald Trump frequently said the phrase was during the presidential campaign, and his supporters often chanted it during his rallies and appearances, most often in reference to Mexican and Latinx immigrants. Groups chanting the phrase in school cafeterias, classrooms and in other public forums has been cited as one form of harassment and intimidation that has been seen out of the more than 200 accounts (as of Nov. 11) tallied by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) since the presidential election. That number has risen even higher in the days since the SLPC released the data, but perhaps what’s even more chilling is that the SPLC says the reports of racial- and bias-related accounts “have been most prevalent at K-12 schools, according to the SPLC findings.”
Over the weekend, several Wilton residents contacted GOOD Morning Wilton about the WHS students chanting “Build the Wall!” during Friday’s game against Danbury. Many people provided anecdotes and stories about other incidents related to campaign-linked discord that they say have taken place in the schools even before Friday night–stretching back to September–and that similar incidents have left their children feeling afraid and upset. One Wilton parent alleged that a similar chanting incident occurred the day after Election Day at Middlebrook.
We reached out to school administrators over the weekend, and on Monday afternoon, around the same time that O’Donnell’s letter arrived in parents’ email inboxes, we spoke first with O’Donnell and then the Wilton Schools superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith. [Click here to read the interview with Dr. Smith.]
Dr. O’Donnell Interview
GMW: When did you hear about the incident at the game on Friday night?
Dr. Robert O’Donnell: I did not hear about until I got an email from Kevin [on Saturday]. I was at the game, I was right there right in front of the student section during the first half, and I didn’t hear anything.
What I’m hearing from students is that there was a faint chant in the first half, and then they chanted it again during the second half.
GMW: Several parents have said that they’ve heard from their children, that there was a group of kids chanting this [phrase], and I’m quoting one, “…the group of racist, Trump-supporting senior boys. It is well known apparently who they are and what they stand for.” I can tell you of several other incidents and things that people have mentioned to me–t-shirts, language, slogans–but in terms of the game, I heard it was a small group of kids [chanting] a couple of times.
Dr. O’Donnell: Yes, the kids I talked to were seniors, when I started doing my investigation, so we’re saying the same thing there.
GMW: How is this being addressed? About the communication that’s going to the students and the families, is there anything you have planned to address this in a very direct way?
Dr. O’Donnell: I just sent a letter actually. [which appears, here:]
Dear Wilton High School Parents,
Some parents and community members have contacted me regarding our Wilton High School students chanting “build the wall” at last Friday night’s football game. It is true that a small number of students did chant this phrase during the game. The students involved in the chanting denied offensive intent, but we recognize that many will feel offended by this particular phrase.
We recognize that sentiments continue to run high post-election; as educators, our mission is to help students create dialogue and understanding around controversy and contention. As a result, we will use this incident as a teachable moment, and foster discussion around the rights and corresponding responsibilities inherent in members of a civil society.
Robert William O’Donnell
Dr. O’Donnell: I met with the students, some of them, and tried to get them to understand that they’re offending people. There are enough people who took it offensively, which is why you’re calling, and why some other community members have contacted me. I’m trying to get them to understand that you don’t have the right to go and offend a bunch of people.
But it’s a little bit of a slippery slope here with free speech with kids, too. There’s a little more to it.
GMW: In your letter, when you say this is a ‘teachable moment,’ what will be taught to them? What’s the teachable moment? What’s going to be communicated to them and to the entire student population?
Dr. O’Donnell: I have to be careful because I haven’t talked to all of them yet. One of the messages is that they’re offending them. There are a lot of people at the football game, and they’re chanting something that, obviously post-election, is still highly inflammatory. People were offended, it’s sending a ripple through the community where there’s already some divisiveness along political lines and along what has happened here. To get them to understand that they’re offending people in the school community. I feel this way and certainly there’s enough people who are saying, “You’re representative of our high school. Do you want people to look at it and say, This is how they behave there?”
There was also a concern, was it directed at Danbury, because that’s a diverse community? The [students] deny that at this point, they say, “It wasn’t because it was Danbury. It was because we feel this way and we have the right to say this. We can express that.”
There has been a pattern, I think some of these kids have done some of this, like you were saying, already. I was trying to determine if there was a direct link between them and the Danbury game.
GMW: There is fear and discomfort from the patterns of incidents around the country, and the people who are more prone to be victimized are afraid of behavior [like was witnessed at the game], putting aside Danbury, what about the students in your school who are students of color, LGBTQ, Jewish, women, any of the groups that have been frequently targeted in these incidents. And them hearing what these students are saying, “This is how we feel.”
Dr. O’Donnell: Some of the students in these groups have been seeking support in the school community and receiving support from staff and administration, right away post-election. In advisory, in classroom discussions, and I say that personally because I’ve been involved as an advisor.
GMW: Is there any kind of statement that either you or the district is going to make about that kind of speech?
Dr. O’Donnell: Well, I just sent the letter and I think I expressed how I feel about it. I think it’s obviously offensive to a lot of people.
GMW: I read a letter from another high school principal, which says, [paraphrasing] ‘this is language that is not anything we stand for in our school. I read something different in your letter. Is there anything that the school will take in a step further in a message to the community and the kids?
Dr. O’Donnell: As I became aware of this incident, I followed it up today and spoke with some of the students who were involved. I did not get to all of them, because to get to these students and not be pulling them out of class takes a lot of time. My schedule was already completely full so I would like to do a little more research and work on it to take a more effective approach.
But I got it across to some of the students I spoke with today that were directly involved, to try to get them to broaden their perspective and understand that when you’re at the football game, you represent yourselves, you represent your families, you represent the Wilton High School community. I was very concerned that it may have been directed at Danbury, which the kids are denying. It’s obviously a very diverse community.
In my opinion I don’t find it appropriate. There are others in the community, as you know, who will say, “Wait a minute, the kids have a right to say that, and they should be able to express their views.” The students need to be able to understand the context and the impact of what they’re saying and that others are offended by it.
Having said that, I talked to a number of kids today, other students, those not chanting, and they said, “You know what, it’s those kids, that’s their views, it didn’t offend us, that’s the way they are.” That’s part of it too.
But there are people who are very offended by it and I understand that. I also understand a lot of it is divided along political lines.