Yesterday, the superintendent of Wilton Public Schools sent a message to the school community expressing his sadness following last weekend’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In his letter, Dr. Kevin Smith detailed the school district’s plan to incorporate stronger curriculum and programming on anti-Semitism, Holocaust education and what he called “cultural competence.” He also reaffirmed the school district’s solidarity with Jewish members of the community and wrote of a commitment to “combat racism, bigotry, and hate.”

Smith said the day following the attack that left 11 people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue he attended a ceremony where he heard CT ADL executive director Steve Ginsberg describe the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents (60% from 2016 to 2017), specifically in schools (94% the same year).

“The clear message is that we can and should be doing more to combat racism, bigotry, and hate. Our school community will not tolerate such acts,” Smith wrote.

He also acknowledged the impact of the massacre specifically on members of Wilton’s Jewish community, increasing their vulnerability and fear.

“We stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors and recommit to efforts to promote peace and to be part of the light that will drive out the darkness.”

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Among the plans Smith says the district has made are training programs for staff and administrators as well as an audit by a multicultural education expert of district policies and practices. In addition, Wilton High School sophomore students will take part in an Anti-Defamation League program called “Names Can Really Hurt Us” in December.

Smith noted that the schools’ mental health staff is available to provide additional support to students or families who are struggling in the wake of the tragedy, and also listed online resources the community can access to help further the discussion and healing.

As part of his message, Smith expressed his own personal reaction to the events in Pittsburgh, describing his own struggle to explain to his 9-year-old son what happened. “How does one explain hate to a nine year old? I am grateful to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for having so many rich resources to help respond to that question; I am heartbroken that in 2018 in America, their resources are in such high demand.”

Dear Parents, Guardians, Faculty and Staff:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr.

Last Sunday, I was one of the hundreds gathered in grief to take comfort from community as we remembered the 11 congregants murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The ceremony was a powerful reminder that our world is filled with good.  Even knowing that to be true, I find it nearly impossible to put words to this senseless slaughter of innocent life. My nine year-old son, Liam, attended with me and in the car on the ride home asked, as a 9 year old would, “Why did they get killed?” How does one explain hate to a nine year old? I am grateful to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for having so many rich resources to help respond to that question; I am heartbroken that in 2018 in America, their resources are in such high demand.

During Sunday’s ceremony, Connecticut ADL Executive Director Steve Ginsberg reminded the audience that anti-Semitic incidents increased nearly 60% from 2016 to 2017. K-12 school-based incidents were up 94% in the same year. The clear message is that we can and should be doing more to combat racism, bigotry, and hate. Our school community will not tolerate such acts.

As we mourn the loss of the victims, we also acknowledge that we have members of this community who feel vulnerable and afraid. For many, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue only deepened their sense of fear. We stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors and recommit to efforts to promote peace and to be part of the light that will drive out the darkness.

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In our schools, we continue efforts initiated last year to strengthen curriculum and programming around Holocaust education and cultural competence. On Dec. 4 our WHS sophomores will participate in the ADL’s Names Can Really Hurt Us program. A number of Middlebrook staff are actively participating in online training offered by Facing History and Ourselves, an organization dedicated to Holocaust and genocide education. Tomorrow, a team of administrators and staff are attending a training program entitled “The December Dilemma,” which will offer strategies to promote greater understanding and respect among students of different traditions by taking care to adhere to the requirements of the First Amendment. Another team is attending ADL’s Echoes and Reflections training on Nov. 6.  This important program provides guidance and instructional materials for use in educating students about the Holocaust. Multicultural education expert Dr. William Howe was in district this past week conducting an audit of our policies and the district committee chaired by Kim Zemo continues its work begun last school year.

The threads that weave the fabric of our Wilton community are strong. Through our shared commitments to eradicate bigotry and hate as well as our resolve to equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and empathy they will need to be tomorrow’s leaders, that fabric will only strengthen.  Below, please note a few resources you may find helpful as you process, or help your children process, the tragic violence at the Tree of Life synagogue. Additionally, our schools’ mental health staff stands ready to support any students or families who may be struggling in the wake of this horrific act of violence.

Sincerely,

Kevin J. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools

Resources:

School Crisis Center:  Guidelines for Talking About Tragedies

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Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress:  Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting Disaster Response and Recovery Resources

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress:  Restoring a Sense of Well-Being for Children After a Disaster