April 5, 2020

Prior to the publication of Michel’s letter, TEAM Westport has worked with students and faculty through multiple events over a span of years in order to promote inclusion and diversity at Staples High School. TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey Jr. said, despite varied initiatives, there has been little success.

I can’t tell you any initiative that we’ve worked on that has made a difference,” Bailey said. “I think the biggest one right now is the ability for students to talk to each other in a group and be able to take issues that come from that. So to me, that’s a big deal.”

Following the letter, Bailey wants TEAM Westport to work closely with Staples High School with the expressed aim of altering the curriculum to add diversity, as well as continue training staff members with third party speakers.

“[W]e had some teachers last year have some training with the Anti-Defamation League,” Bailey said, “we had administrators go through training with professors from American University and a good number of those were all administrators from Staples and the Westport school system overall.”

Bailey remains optimistic that TEAM Westport-Staples will continue working closely with the Staples High School administration.

“We obviously have been working with them since and we hope to see some things change in terms of structure and programming initiatives,” Bailey said. “I think there’s a real willingness and positivity to move forward on a number of other initiatives.”

Thomas expects that reconstructing Staples High School’s social infrastructure will entail educating students of the impact of one’s insensitive comments towards minority students.

“[Reconstructing social infrastructure would entail] making people aware of what microaggressions are,” Thomas said. “Making people aware of how your behavior can impact others.”

In an effort to discuss minority groups and build acceptance of diversity, Thomas, along with Social Studies Honors Society Rho Kappa, outside organizations and other involved students, have created a Diversity Month for March 2020. According to Thomas, plans to create this month of diversity awareness had been in place since January.

“Some [activities] will go through Connections, some will be activities during the school day in the cafeteria, and some will be after school, there may be speakers that go into some classes,” Thomas said.

According to Johnson, another issue students hope will  be addressed is the lack of minority educators within the Staples environment.

“I also think that the lack of black faculty is an issue,” Johnson said. “Especially in administrative roles and guidance counselors, school psychologists. If you don’t have any black teachers or outreach, then I just feel like all those kids can’t talk to anybody.”

Human Resources Director John Bayers noted parts of Michel’s letter that accused Principal Thomas of being hired for his race. According to Bayers, following former Principal James D’Amico’s departure from his position, a comprehensive committee was formed of administrators, faculty members, students and parents in search for a replacement who conducted an extensive search with multiple candidates.

“When we were hiring for the Staples principal position, we had a very comprehensive pool of candidates,” Bayers said, “it was a group of candidates that included [Thomas], male candidates, female candidates, it was a mixed group of candidates and it was a huge committee.”

However, Bayers agrees with Michel in regards to the lack of diversity among staff members. According to Bayers, the lack of diversity among certified educators is a state-wide issue and not specific to the WPS District.

“There’s no doubt in terms of the fact that yes, we do not have an overly diverse population of educators across the school; however, that is something that we said that we’re working on in terms of trying to improve those numbers, and it’s not unique to Westport,” Bayers said.

According to Bayers, WPS was one of the eight districts in Connecticut that has joined a pilot program that will develop a comprehensive plan encouraging the recruitment of a more diverse population of educators in the WPS system. According to EdSight, run by the Connecticut State Department of Education, only 8.9% of certified educators in the state of Connecticut are minorities. Bayers stated the state aims to increase the number of certified minority educators to 10%.

“Having a more diverse workforce is a huge priority for the state of Connecticut. It’s not just a Westport concern,” Bayers said. 

According to Michel, educating the administration and faculty members would lead to improving inclusivity of all students.

“I feel like it’s more of an administration and teacher issue than it is of a student because I feel like teachers influence the students more to say what they say,” Michel said.

Kale maintains that increasing diversity among staff members will promote an inclusive and inviting environment for all students.

“Teachers are role models,” Kale said, “and as a student, having a teacher that looks like you can make the classroom feel more inviting and the subject matter seem less intimidating because you immediately relate to the person who is teaching you.”

Gary Lu ’21, a member of TEAM Westport-Staples, believes that introducing diversity into Staples High School will be a slow and continuous process.

“Westport is just so homogenous and there are very few minorities, so personally, I think the only way you could really change anything is to make it more diverse and that takes time,” Lu said. “It’s not something you can really force.”

In addition to creating a more diverse staff at Staples High School, students believe that a more inclusive curriculum that delves into African American culture is necessary. Johnson has no accounts of reading literature by African American females, and very few African American male authors.

“That has to start at kindergarten and that has to continue until 12th grade. We can’t just start confronting all these issues now,” Johnson said. 

Superintendent Dr. David Abbey believes remains hopeful that the district can work towards creating an even more accepting community.

“We’ve always been, I believe, a very inclusive district, which doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do,” Abbey said. “We do. The work is ongoing, […] serious and important work, but on a comparative basis, the district and the town has always been inclusive. […] As a school district, we want to go from being race-neutral to actively dealing with issues associated with race or ethnicity.”

Abbey believes that Staples High School is capable of addressing and working towards finding a remedy in creating a more inclusive community.

“Between the students, the faculty, the staff and the administration,” Abbey said, “I have great faith in what’s going to happen going forward.” 

Michel hopes for the administration to address the concerns stated in the letter in aims to improve inclusivity among all students.

“Please help us voice our opinions,” Michel wrote, “and seek awareness to this situation.”

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