In her letter, Niah Michel, 17, writing “on behalf of the black community of Staples High School and racial issues that occur at this high school,” states that students and staff have demonstrated insensitive behavior, including asking students of color if they live in Bridgeport, some students being told they shouldn’t wear certain clothes “the white girls” wear, and even use of the N word in a joking manner.
“An environment which enables racial or other slights of this type for any of its students is wholly unacceptable and certainly antithetical to the values of this town,” Bailey said, noting that while similar things are occurring nationally and statewide, that was no excuse.
He said that TEAM Westport has been working directly with the Westport Public School for the past 18 months to address these issues and augment change, but stressed it needed to happen faster.
“We ask this board and the town to designate this work as a priority,” he said, “and as such set aside appropriate funding for the new superintendent to move forward on it expeditiously.”
Superintendent of School David Abbey voiced his support for TEAM Westport, as well as directly for Bailey and his wife, Bernicestine, who was at tonight’s meeting.
“We view TEAM Westport as partners in our work to move the school district forward,” Abbey said.
At last week’s BOE meeting Abbey responded to the issue for the first time publicly, stating that caution should be taken—both by parents and the news media—with regard to taking what was said at face value.
“We’re dealing with children here,” he said, simultaneously acknowledging Michel’s right to express her views, but indicating she was still an underage student.
“When issues come up it sometimes behooves us to take a step back and find out what occurred in a … responsible manner,” he said, cautioning people to “resist the impulse to pounce, resist the impulse to judge, and to resist the impulse to blame.”
“We know that in some ways we are just beginning,” Abbey said last week of these issues, “and we understand that we have much work to do.”
BOE Chair Candice Savin likewise expressed her support for TEAM Westport, noting last month that she and her board were committed to working with them.
John Bayers, director of human resources and general administration, said last month that Westport was one of eight districts participating in a pilot program aimed at increasing diversity in its workforce.
“This problem must be addressed effectively and addressed now,” Bailey said tonight. “We know that it will take some time to solve, (but) it must no longer be explained away or swept under the rug.”
“I do not want to hear my grandchildren relating the same stories I heard from my children,” he said.
Here is the complete text of Bailey’s remarks:
The school environment reflected in the student letter published on February 14 in WestportNow.com entitled “Racism at Staples” is in synch with the environment described by Westport children of families of color over the past few decades including my own.
More recently, the description was corroborated in the Teen Diversity Essays submitted in 2017 and 2019 as well as the Staples student podcast recognized by NPR last year. Specifically, from Diversity Essays to incidents to inputs from students and parents over decades, we have a common problem described which spans race, ethnicity, religion and LGBTQ.
That is a problem that we share with our state and the nation. However, the fact that similar problems exist in school systems with Westport’s demographics statewide and nationwide is neither comfort nor excuse. An environment which enables racial or other slights of this type for any of its students is wholly unacceptable and certainly antithetical to the values of this town.
Effective Global Citizenship demands an ability to navigate the world with genuine respect for people and cultures that are different from one’s own.
While our primary focus must be the students on the receiving end of the aforementioned aggressions, we cannot lose sight of the damage extended to all other students and faculty (whether perpetrator or bystander, intentional or unintentional) who come to see such environments as normal and acceptable.
In that sense, addressing these issues will positively affect every educator in teaching and student in learning effective Global Citizenship.
For the past year and a half, TW has worked with the Westport Schools on developing a framework including training, hiring, curriculum and staffing which would obviate the potential for such racist, religious and homophobic damage to all students from K through 12.
In his work since coming on board last July, Principal Thomas has developed a vision for Staples which if effectively implemented will address these issues at the high school level. That work has been very positively supported by Interim Superintendent Abbey and the leadership of this board.
TEAM Westport commits our continued support of the work underway. We will continue to work with students, teachers, administrators and parents within the school system as well as the Town of Westport at large.
At the same time, we ask this board and the town to designate this work a priority and as such set aside appropriate funding for the new superintendent to move forward on it expeditiously.
This problem must be addressed effectively and addressed so it is not swept under the rug. I do not want to hear my grandchildren relating the same stories I heard from my children.