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Westport Public Schools face accusations of racism

Zoe Alpert ’25
On Feb. 27, gathered on North Avenue across from Staples High School and Bedford Middle School to peacefully protest against racism and discrimination in Westport Public Schools. The protest lasted from 7:30-8:30 a.m.

Westport Public Schools received calls for a reform of its policies regarding racism following a peaceful protest on Feb. 27, outside of Staples High School and Bedford Middle School. The protest was in response to a Board of Education meeting where Westport parents Dr. Carol Felder and Richard Anderson spoke out against the racism their daughters experienced within the school system. 

Following the protest, over 30 Westport parents submitted a letter on March 5 to the Board of Education and Westport Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice, that provided multiple short-term, medium-term and long-term policy proposals.

Scarice shared that he was appreciative of parents who shared their suggestions on potential policy changes.

“The district has been committed to improving our school cultures and working to prevent misconduct such as racism, antisemitism, homophobia and any other misconduct directed at groups of students,” Scarice wrote in a March 12 email. “The overall strategy in confronting these matters is to build a strong program of prevention, and to ensure that when misconduct occurs, it is thoroughly addressed.”

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The district plans to implement other changes such as updating the Student Behavioral Code of Conduct and providing staff training on topics such as microaggressions. Such changes are also outlined on a recently published website.

 The website went live on March 13, around two weeks after the Feb. 27 demonstration that was organized by Dr. Felder, Anderson, their friends, as well as Westport Onyx, a group that aims to support the town’s Black community. 

“We had support from many people from many walks of life at the protest, and that was just very heartwarming,” Dr. Felder said. “We said that it was a community issue and the community showed up in support of us to solidify that it truly is, and that there are many people who desire that same change.”

We’re met with sympathy, but sympathy does not help the problem. It’s appreciated but we don’t want sympathy; we want action.

— Dr. Felder

Prior to the protest, Dr. Felder spoke at a Feb. 15 Board of Education meeting about the racist behavior her daughters were exposed to. After reporting the incidents to the school, how the school handled the situation left her feeling “hopeless” and “not heard” or “seen,” which ultimately led to her decision to speak out during the public comment section of the meeting.

After experiencing repeated microaggressions from her peers, one of Dr. Felder’s daughters, Riley Anderson ’27 said she discovered text messages between two acquaintances, containing blatantly-racist comments targeted at her. After showing screenshots to her teacher, it was reported to both the counseling department and administrators. The initial reaction from the school led Riley to believe that the situation would be handled satisfactorily. However, she said she was disappointed by the outcome.

“In my mind I was assuming [the perpetrator was] going to be expelled because what he said to me was completely inappropriate and something that’s not tolerated,” Riley said. “I just felt as if the consequences were very inadequate.” 

While disappointed at the school’s response, Riley is grateful for her parents for taking action and the community’s outright support.

“What my parents have done is show that this is not something you are going to get away with,” she said. “You can’t let people get away with these things; it leads them to do it again.” 

Dr. Felder felt similarly about the school’s response. 

“We’re met with sympathy, but sympathy does not help the problem,” she said. “It’s appreciated but we don’t want sympathy; we want action.”

Harold Bailey Jr., the chairman of TEAM Westport, an official Westport committee whose goal is to promote inclusivity and belonging in regards to race, ethnicity, religion and the LGBTQIA+ community, pointed out how this has been an ongoing issue in Westport.

“The problem is not something the schools alone can handle. It’s a town problem,” Bailey said. “And we’ve been talking about the last 20 years [about] making people aware of microaggressions, stereotypes, systemic racism, on antisemitism and the really insidious ways that fits into the way people talk and think.”

 Board of Education member Kevin Christie discussed that in addition to the Board revising its policies, other work must be taken to implement change.

“Racism is learned,” Christie wrote in a March 10 email. “As individual members of the Westport community, we should ask ourselves, where is it coming from? A truly effective assault on racism in our schools will require support from the community and at home.”

In the future, Riley hopes those engaging in racism will be called out for their actions and be met with appropriate consequences. Riley feels strongly that she and any other victims will be heavily supported through any experience regarding racism. 

“There’s a whole community of people who stand by any victim,” Riley said, “[…] and make sure that perpetrators know that it’s not okay what [they’re] doing. It’s not okay at all.” 

This story was originally published on Inklings on April 23, 2024.