Westport principal vows for more inclusivity in response to racial claims

WESTPORT — In response to a teen’s letter published online claiming a racist culture exists at Staples High, the school’s principal says he’s exploring ways to create an ongoing open and inclusive environment for students.

“Clearly, as a newcomer coming in, we have to build community,” said Stafford Thomas, who replaced James D’Amico as principal this year. “Part of what we’re working on is to build up these advisory groups and to start having these conversations.”

In her letter, published Feb. 14 on WestportNow, Staples High senior Niah Michel alleged that she and her friends have faced racism from classmates while teachers and administrators have not done enough to address the problem. Thomas responded later that day in an email to Staples families that the school was working to identify bias and being mindful of offensive behaviors.

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In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media on Thursday, Thomas said minority students had approached him several months ago about their concerns.

The day before Michel’s letter was published, Thomas appeared on a podcast for the school’s student newspaper to outline steps the Staples community planned to address these issues.

One idea involves developing a more collaborative relationship with TEAM Westport, a nonprofit that promotes multiculturalism in town, and the high school’s Connections program, a workshop that creates a space for difficult conversations.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said the town was fortunate to have organizations like TEAM Westport to help the community find long-term solutions for inclusivity.

“This is an ongoing challenge to deal with issues of inclusiveness,” he said Friday. “We need to be focused on this not just for a period of time, but an ongoing basis. I’m committed to doing what I can in conjunction with TEAM Westport to address specific issues in our schools.”

Thomas anticipates a two-fold approach, focusing on both educators and students.

“Really I think it starts with education, if you will, on implicit bias,” he said. “We all carry bias. No matter what color you are, we all have a bias toward something.”

Considering the pressures students already face in high school, Thomas said there’s an added layer when societal challenges are thrown into the mix.

“This is obviously extremely difficult and it takes time,” he said, adding further dialogue can help to raise awareness on microaggressions.

Thomas acknowledged he may be one of the few black administrators in a predominantly white suburban school district like Westport. Thomas said he’s also faced racial stereotypes. He said there have been times when he’s been grocery shopping dressed in a suit and tie and customers have mistaken him for a store employee.

“I was brought up that you have to keep your head down, tough skin, and you work to get your opportunities,” he said.

To tackle these difficult conversations in school, Thomas suggested advisory classes could be key, due to the intimate setting of smaller groups.

“When you have 600 people or 900 people in one meeting hall, it’s hard to make it personal or do activities,” he said. “You can have powerful moments, but for moments that create change, we do have an advisory group that could be beneficial.”

Other initiatives include a climate survey to discover how the student body is feeling regarding racial bias, and a freshman orientation program to address student expectations, which begins next year.

“I think every year you’ll have more students coming in with an understanding,” Thomas said.

Thomas said school officials are considering how to continue the dialogue following Michel’s letter, including a possible roundtable discussion or podcasts to give students a platform.

“It’s about how do you make Staples a school for everyone where they feel comfortable, want to come, and have similar experiences,” Thomas said. “It’s really looking at other ways to start and have a conversation.”