Westport student praised for raising school racism concerns
WESTPORT — Since penning a letter claiming minority students are subjected to racist behavior at Staples High School, senior Niah Michel says many of her peers have thanked her for speaking up.
“I’ve had so many people text me and thank me for what I did,” she said Tuesday, though admitting there were some negative comments posted online.
What Michel did “takes courage,” Norwalk resident Lee Larchevesque stated on Facebook, while Michelle Bravo wrote: “Niah Michel — good for you for speaking out — I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.”
Michel, who is black, said statements made last week on social media by a white classmate prompted her to submit the letter to the editor on WestportNow, detailing situations she felt showed an apparent disregard for black and Latino students from the school’s staff and their peers.
Michel said school officials have arranged a meeting with the 17-year-old’s family next week.
Principal Stafford Thomas emailed families Friday night in response to the letter, acknowledging the school faces “the same challenges as the community at large, our state and nation,” and indicating the district was working to build a more inclusive environment. Efforts he highlighted included the district’s Connections program and collaboration with TEAM Westport’s diversity initiatives.
“A community is a group of people we lean on when times are tough who are there for each other when we need love, support and encouragement,” he wrote. “I have seen this with regularity this year, but too frequently, in separate groups. We are going to change this.”
TEAM Westport Chairman Harold Bailey Jr. could not be reached for comment, while Interim Superintendent of Schools David Abbey declined comment and referred to Thomas’ statement to parents.
Board of Education Chairwoman Candice Savin said the school board takes these concerns seriously, adding district strives to create an equitable, respectful and nurturing environment for all students.
“I know that’s a priority for everybody on the board,” she said.
Savin said the Anti-Defamation League has conducted programming with educators, and administrators took anti-racism and equity training last year.
“We are always striving to do better and we always take these concerns very seriously,” she said.
However, Michel said she has raised concerns in the past, but felt nothing has changed.
“All the racist situations we go through, the higher-ups ... they always push us off and always tell us we’re going to get an answer. And time goes by and we never get an answer,” she said.
In her letter, Michel did not mention what prompted her to speak out. But when reached on Friday, she described a Snapchat post by a white student who allegedly said blacks should go back to being slaves and work in a field.
After hearing about the post, Michel said she and a friend verbally confronted the classmate on Feb. 6. It resulted in Michel being sent to the principal’s office later that day.
“But they never investigated or took the time to understand what really happened,” said Michel’s friend, who requested that her name be withheld and said she feels like an outsider and not “wanted” at Staples.
For both girls, this was merely the tipping point in what they described as a pattern of consistent, subtle digs at minority students in Westport that has gone on for years.
Michel said there are times when white students ask blacks if they “live in Bridgeport,” and question if their hair is “real” or if their fathers live with them. Other times, she claims, minority students are told they can’t get into certain colleges or it’s assumed they are all in the free lunch program.
“We talk to people and it’s like we’re talking to a wall,” she said. “We just need to be heard.”
Norwalk NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said she was notified of Michel’s letter this week and plans to take action.
“We’re not going to tolerate this,” she said, noting she’s working alongside NAACP presidents of the Stamford and Bridgeport branches for possible solutions.
The “Undoing Racism” workshop offered by The People’s Institute could help inform the school community of racism’s ills, she suggested.
“We’re here to help, but this stuff has got to stop,” Penn-Williams said, adding she hopes to meet with Abbey to further understand what led to the student’s letter.
Meanwhile, Westport parent Aleyda Vallejo said she could relate to Michel’s frustrations about how the school has handled incidents of racism.
Vallejo, a Latina mother of two daughters at Staples, said her children have been the target of racial jokes.
“I’m not happy with this,” she said. “I start thinking we have to move out of Westport or move to another school. For me, it’s not nice. Everyone (black, Latino) has to be treated the same way.”
According to Vallejo, a student recently “joked” about calling immigration authorities on her freshman daughter.
“No one has to make this kind of joke,” said the former Stamford resident, who moved to Westport three years ago because of the highly regarded school system.
Vallejo said her daughters have felt uncomfortable addressing the issues with teachers and administrators, who they claim have not been helpful.
Vallejo’s oldest daughter, who asked not to be named, said teachers and administrators regularly avoid addressing these racial issues.
“Every time we do say something, they never look into or deny everything we have to say,” she said. “... It gets them all really mad. All the other students and teachers just don’t understand. They think we’re trying to be over-dramatic, but it’s things that really hurt us.”
In publishing her letter, Michel hopes to bring awareness to the problems minority students are facing at the high school.
“I’m personally going to keep striving until almost everyone in Westport knows me and my friends’ stories,” she said. “I’m not giving up.”