Letter depicting racism unveils persisting issue, prompts reconstruction of social infrastructure

April 5, 2020

There was the time in class when a teacher asked Niah Michel ’20 why she spoke “so gangster.” On the bus home from a track meet, a fellow student asked her why she wasn’t sitting at the back of the bus.

These accumulated experiences of microaggressions led Michel to express her views, as well as representing African American and Latino students, regarding racism at Staples in a letter to the editor of WestportNow published on Feb. 14. 

Michel’s letter prompted an email sent out by Principal Stafford W. Thomas Jr., reaffirming his commitment to reconstructing  Staples High School’s social infrastructure. 

The letter depicted numerous microaggressions allegedly made toward Michel and other minority students and noted the lack of diversity among staff members at Staples High School.

“The whole letter was my decision,” Michel said. “When I was writing my letter, no one helped me while writing it and sending it off, but I made sure to mention in that letter that I was not only speaking for myself, but I was speaking for other people.”

In efforts to discuss potential change, Michel, along with other students, have met with Thomas intermittently to discuss struggles within the Staples community. According to Michel, despite meeting with administrators, she has witnessed no change at Staples.

“I personally have not seen anything [change],” Michel said. “I [felt as if I were] sitting here talking to a wall.”

According to Michel, insensitive comments made towards her have resonated with her throughout her years at Staples High School.

“Those little words they have said to us, those remarks, all those things carry a burden on our shoulders,” Michel said.

EXPERIENCES

In addition to Michel, other minority students have recalled their experience with racist comments made towards them.

Natasha Johnson ’20, co-President of Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism (TEAM) Westport-Staples, a club that works towards inclusivity at Staples, believes that many experiences of microaggressions stem from a lack of education among students.

 “I think that in this age, a lot of the racism I face is more ignorance,” Johnson said.

Co-President of TEAM Westport-Staples Jax Adler ’20 recalled his experience in the Westport Public Schools [WPS] system without a teacher or administrator of color to look up to.

“I can remember going through all of elementary school and middle school and not having one black adult in the building other than a janitor,” Adler said.

Johnson believes that the responsibility to manifest change is unfairly placed on students rather than left to administrators.

“My experience is that I think that sometimes the administration expects the black students and minority students to do something about [racism],” Johnson said. “I don’t see the school actively taking steps to help us out. I am perfectly okay with promoting things and sending them whatever, but why is it always on me or us?”

Johnson recalled an incident with a student following an insensitive remark directed at her.

“I was asked by [an administrator] ‘Well what do you want me to do about it?’” Johnson said. “I didn’t really know how to respond to that. […] Of course I would like something to happen […] but sometimes I think the problem is that there’s a lot of weight put on my shoulders or other students shoulders, and at the time, I was 14. I didn’t go to college. I wasn’t a teacher.”

According to Adler, in meetings with club advisors for TEAM Westport-Staples—literacy coach Rebecca Marsick and social studies department head Lauren Francese—many instances of microaggressions are blurred as the increased frequency of the comments made towards minority students has facilitated the normalization of expressed prejudice.

“We’ll ask [students] ‘Can you give us a specific event with a specific person so we can try and do something about it?’ But people won’t even remember. They can’t even pinpoint a specific time because it happens so often,” Adler said. “Recently, I’ve started to not even say anything about it because it’s gotten to a point where if you say something about it, people take it as a joke […] They just kind of deflect from it and try to make it seem like what they said was not a problem.”

An anonymous Latina senior girl also noted an incident including an insensitive comment made by a classmate.

“[I]n my Spanish class […] we were talking about Spanish people’s jobs in other countries,” she explained, “and [a fellow student] said ‘they’re here to clean and build sh*t for us.’ I turned around and I felt so disrespected by that kid. ”

AnnaMaria Fernandez ’20 also expressed her experience as a minority at Staples High School. 

 “I have a very different experience than a lot of other people of color at Staples, but I’ve definitely heard offensive and targeted comments,” Fernandez said. “I’ve been asked if this is my real hair. People touch my hair all the time.  It’s really annoying. I’m not going to go up to you and touch your hair so that’s something that is really uncomfortable […] No one ever asks.” 

Former student Reva Kale ’19 noted instances of comments made to her by staff members.

“I’ve had people, including teachers, mistake me for other Indian people or assume that I’m friends with every Indian person in school,” Kale said. “Once, a faculty member handed me the wrong school picture [of another Indian student] and when I mentioned that they had made a mistake, I was told to keep the picture anyway because the other Indian girl was probably a friend of mine.”

REACTIONS

In response to Michel’s letter, students recalled their own instances of microaggressions made towards them.

“To be honest, there isn’t one part of Niah’s letter that didn’t resonate with me,” former student Reign Kingsley ’19 said. “I think every person of color that has attended Staples felt her letter on a personal level […] I completely agree with Niah’s statement. Every day is a reminder you’re not like 98% of your classmates.”

While Adler agreed with certain ideas expressed in the letter, Adler disagreed with a few points. However, Adler agreed that many ideas presented in Michel’s letter as a whole are important for students and staff to read and understand.

 “Rereading it, I saw a couple things that I thought were kind of questionable,” Adler said. “[S]he said […] she speaks for the black and Latino community, but didn’t really consult a lot of people before writing the letter. She then called out principal Thomas [saying] they [the committee] hired him […] as a token black administrator which I heavily disagree with. He’s been really good for the schools and is doing more than anyone else I’ve seen in my four years at Staples.”

Fernandez agreed with Adler, and emphasized her frustration with Michel’s decision to speak on behalf of both the African American and Latino community.

“Initially, I was really angry,” Fernandez said. “I remember being so upset because she was appointing herself as the representative of all people of color at Staples […] I have a very different experience from her, and I’m sure so many other people of color do as well at this school. I was just angry that she had not talked to anybody about that.”

According to Fernandez, although she agreed with certain ideas presented in the letter, no solution was presented to remedy the problem.

“When I read it, it didn’t seem like there was a purpose. [I]t felt like it could have been ‘this is what I want, this is my story and here’s where we can go from here,’” Fernandez said. 

 Thomas hopes that efforts made after the letter will remedy Michel’s feelings along with other minority students.

“It’s unfortunate that we have students that feel that way,” Thomas said. “[W]e need to build community and make Staples a place for everyone, so that’s something we’re cognizant about. But it takes time to get things in place and it’s not going to happen overnight. There should be more awareness about what’s acceptable, what’s not and why.”

FUTURE ACTION

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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