Westport diversity group: Town must address school racial issues

WESTPORT — TEAM Westport Chairman Harold Bailey Jr. supported a student’s recent claims of racist behavior at Staples High School, saying other teens have expressed similar complaints over the years.

“The school environment reflected in the student letter published on Feb. 14 in WestportNow titled ‘Racism at Staples’ is in sync with the environment described by Westport children of families of color for the past few decades,” Bailey said at a Board of Education meeting Monday, while urging the town to prioritize addressing the problem.

In her letter, Staples senior Niah Michel claimed minority students faced racism from classmates while administrators did little to address the problem.

“Although some black people live in Westport, we are always asked ‘if we live in Bridgeport,’ ‘If this is our real hair,’ ” the letter stated.

Bailey noted the sentiments in the letter were corroborated in TEAM Westport’s teen diversity essays and a Staples student’s recent podcast. Last year, two high schoolers wrote essays about their experience with race in school, with one winner describing racist jokes he endured growing up.

“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,” Bailey said. “That is a problem that we share with our state and the nation.”

“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 continued.

Over the last 18 months, TEAM Westport — whose acronym stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism — has collaborated with the school district on training, curriculum and staffing to prevent potential racial, religious and homophobic transgressions.

Bailey also highlighted the work done by Staples Principal Stafford Thomas since being hired in July.

“Principal Thomas has developed a vision for Staples which, if effectively implemented, will address these issues at the high school level,” he said, adding the work has been supported by Interim Superintendent David Abbey and the education board.

Abbey said the district views TEAM Westport as partners in moving the district forward with respect to creating an inclusive environment.

“Toward that end, we’ve met on a frequent basis to entertain a number of fantastic ideas they’ve had,” he said. “Even though I’m only here for a few more months, I look forward to continuing the work.”

Bailey concluded by requesting the town and school board to prioritize these issues, and that appropriate funding be given to the superintendent to move forward on such efforts.

“This problem must be addressed effectively and addressed now, since we know it will take some time to solve,” Bailey said. “It must no longer be explained away or swept under the rug. I do not want to hear from my grandson relating the same stories I heard from my children.”