Superintendent on WHS : “Our Obligation to Teach–Words Matter”
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 [click here to read that interview] and below is our interview with the Wilton Schools superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith.
Interview with Dr. Kevin Smith
GMW: What is your takeaway from the “Build the Wall” incident at last Friday’s game, and how do you want to move forward with that?
Dr. Kevin Smith: Contextually, as you well know, following the elections, emotions are running high everywhere. We, as a community, need to be clear in times like this about what it is we value. I can tell you very clearly that–as a school community and that it’s reflected in the broader community–we value diversity, inclusivity and sensitivity, among other things.
I don’t think our students would be intentionally disrespectful of others. I do see the moments like this as opportunities to educate–that is our purpose. Parents and adults everywhere have an obligation when they hear or are confronted by speech that could be perceived as offensive. It’s our job to educate and help people understand the potential impact of their words and what they mean.
It’s what my wife and I try to do with our own kids, I think most adults would agree and support. That’s our obligation, to teach.
GMW: There are people in the community who are looking for a strong statement, what they’ve seen other school districts make, about what kind of language will and won’t be tolerated.
Dr. Smith: I think there’s a tradition here in Wilton of taking a strong stand against speech that is considered hateful. Certainly, we need to educate our young people about the power of words and help them understand that words that can be considered hateful really don’t have a place in public.
In every way, we need to overtly promote the values of tolerance and perspective taking, and when words violate that spirit, then we need to work with our young people to help them understand. This is a community that absolutely values tolerance; the schools have a place to champion that value.
Racism, bigotry and intolerance violate our values as a school district and community. I know the high school administration is working to understand exactly what took place at the football game on Friday night, but to be clear, our school leaders do not condone any behavior that would be construed as racist or intolerant. All of the adults in our system have an obligation to teach the values of tolerance and inclusion as well as the obligation to teach our students that words matter.
GMW: There are people who have asked if there is a consequence for [such] language when it’s used.
Dr. Smith: It would be premature to comment on a consequence because we want to understand the impact. Truly, we need to educate. Words matter, we know that, and we need to educate very clearly about the power of words and help our young people who are learning understand that, periodically, they may say things that are hurtful or offensive or divisive. It’s one thing to have a debate; it’s another thing to willfully cause harm to others through your words. That’s never going to be ok. We can’t stand for that, but we have to work with our young people and be clear about teaching that lesson.
GMW: Beyond the incident at the football game and the high school, I’ve heard reports of similar events in lower grades (although far fewer). As the head of the district, what are you communicating to the other administrators and teachers?
Dr. Smith: Across our country, many people have very strong feelings, across the spectrum, about this election. Our job with our kids and our students is first, reassure them. This country was founded on the principles of freedom of speech.
While we need to honor that principle, we also need to remember and be very clear that we need to be respectful and create safe spaces for all. That’s the message that the principals and certainly the administrators understand.
I think of all of the work we are doing in our schools to create safe, positive climates–reaching out and trying to bridge differences is a key part of that work. Ensuring that our staff are aware and in tune, making sure that our students feel safe and helping to assure them, especially for some that are feeling uneasy today, that’s the critical work of right now.
GMW: Some parents who have pointed to ‘ongoing’ issues that they feel have been unanswered and unaddressed–from the 2014 swastika incidents at WHS to reports of campaign posters and divisive rhetoric and behavior from students this year. That things get brushed under the carpet with no consequence attached to these kinds of behaviors. That the students know what happened but beyond “teachable moments” and “climate,” incidents aren’t specifically, directly dealt with openly and head on. What do you say to those parents?
Dr. Smith: First things first: the adults who work in the school system, their first obligation is to ensure the safety of children and students–physical safety, psychological, emotional, and social safety. If there were instances where kids were saying things that were hurtful or disrespectful, the adults have an obligation to address those–to name them, confront the behavior and to work with the students to change the behavior.
If the parents are sending those [reports of incidents] to you, are they sending those same things to the high school administration? Is it presumed that it’s known and they’re not responding to it? As a middle school principal I used to have this experience all the time. I would be in the cafeteria almost daily, it was a great place to interface with the kids. Sometimes mean words would be exchanged across a lunch table, and I might have been within earshot, so kids at the table would assume I heard it but that wasn’t accurate. They’d say to me, ‘Did you hear that? You didn’t respond.’ The answer was, ‘No, I didn’t hear that, and had I heard it I would have responded.’
It’s hard to say if there is a general pattern that some in the community are observing, that some of the administrators are indifferent to these concerns, we need to really look into that. Because my experience of school leaders, across the board, is not that. That they really do take these issues very seriously, that they try to work with the students and staff to address them.
What I’d say to the folks who are emailing you, have you taken the opportunity [to reach out to administrators], and if the answer is yes and they haven’t been satisfied with the outcome, then let’s take the next step. If no, then present whatever information that needs to come to the administration and give them the opportunity to respond and help sort through some of these issues.
Schools are complex places, and you’re not going to find a school leader in this district who doesn’t put kids first. Sometimes they need support. If there is information people have, or an issue that they want to address, they need to feel safe and comfortable in presenting it to the administration, wherever it is, in whatever building.
GMW: What are some things you’re doing long term to reinforce the messages of diversity and tolerance?
Dr. Smith: Number one, restating our commitment to tolerance, diversity and inclusivity. Beyond that, raising awareness that some of our practices in the past may have unintentionally offended some in our community.
For example, last year we received some concerns at the high school about the candlelight concert and some of the perceived, religious overtones in that concert. The staff took that on and made some appropriate changes. Also last year, in the 4th grade spring concert, one of the songs was a secularized version of St. Francis’ Prayer for Peace. But the teacher displayed an icon of St. Francis. Those are the kinds of things that, I don’t think it was intentionally offensive, but we need to give more thought when, particularly in those kinds of situations, that our actions are overtly inclusive.
We’ve had several conversations. We’re working on raising awareness and looking at how else can we address some of these concerns. Certainly one part of that is the curriculum. I don’t think we’re at the stage where we’ve made and commitment to curricular changes, but there are some good, prepared curriculae available that reinforces those beliefs. So we’re going to be moving forward and working on some of these issues.
It’s important to note, when last I pulled our demographics, in our elementary schools we were pretty close to 18-20 percent minority enrollment. The school community is changing. That’s all the more reason that we pay attention to the issues of inclusivity and tolerance even more closely. It reflects our community, and our community deserves nothing less.
GMW: Is there anything else you want to add?
Dr. Smith: The incident that occurred Friday night, I want to be clear: the school district and the high school would never support students being willfully hurtful to others. We have an obligation to work with our young people and educate them. But we are not going to turn a blind eye to that kind of behavior.