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Dismantling Racism in Haddam Killingworth

By Kathy Brown.

“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequalities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist,'” says Ibram Kendi in How to Be an Antiracist.

Haddam Killingworth is a pretty vocal community, as evidenced by the multiple social media pages for each town. Adults who would probably wave or smile at each other in the grocery store don’t shrink from swearing at each other and calling each other names from behind their computer screens or phones. And unfortunately, social media can also be a platform for racism.

Just in the last week, one of my children gave me several examples of racist posts by teenagers who live in our community, though it certainly is not limited to this timeframe. I asked several people in our community if they thought that racism in our community was getting worse. “Racism is very bad here,” said Heather Pach, of Haddam. “And for too long it has been allowed to run wild without holding people accountable.”

“On social media, both adults and students are making racial comments yet defending them as not being racist,” said Jill Henry, a junior at Haddam Killingworth High School. “What many fail to understand is that examples of racism go far deeper than just yelling a racial slur.”

Cristina Vincenty, who graduated from HKHS in ’15, and is Puerto Rican, recalls several instances of racism throughout school. At HKMS, one of her classmates called her “squirrel’s nest” and told her that her hair was “disgusting.” Classmates and even teachers would pull her curls.  A fellow student called one of her classmates the N-word, as well as petting Christina’s hair and saying, “I love Black people hair.”

A mother in Killingworth recounted her experience, “My son suddenly stopped going to school one year in late February, saying he had a terrible stomachache. This went on for several days. I finally asked him and found out that a few of his friends, one boy in particular, was bullying him at the lunch table in front of all of their friends. You see, while I’m a fourth generation American, my husband emigrated from the Middle East in the 1990’s and studied to become a chef/restauranteur. Apparently one of the boys knew where [my husband] came from. At the lunch table, this boy would say thinks like, ‘Why don’t you go back to the country where you came from?’ And ‘Are you a member of ISIS? You sure look like it!’ The effects of this was devastating to our family. The worse part is that none of my son’s peers stuck up for him. To this day, I feel as though the entire HK community abandoned us.”

“Approximately ten years ago, a family moved up the road from us,” says Heather Pach. “The children are Hispanic and Italian, however the oldest child was half Black. He was subjected to hateful racist voicemails while in middle school. These incidents were addressed by the school and students were expelled. As part of the expulsion agreement, they had to do community service in an urban setting and do research through ADL to create a research paper… Fast forward and this likely would not even get to the Board level.” Heather thinks that more people are sharing their racist thoughts and defending their racist thoughts and behaviors in our community. And at the school, those people are getting less harsh consequences than they have in the past.

“There have been so many racist comments made toward my kids, [it’s] hard to pick just a couple,” said one mother of Latinx children in our community, whose children started receiving racist comments at age 6. “The N word is always there. And ‘How did you get across the border?'”

Kedarjah Lewis, a junior from Haddam at HKHS said that when she was in third grade at Haddam Elementary School, she experienced racism for the first time. “I had just moved to America [from Jamaica] and there was this student who said his mom told him not to share with black people. I went home and told my mom [and] that was the first time my mom ever had to educate me on being safe in this country and how people of color are viewed/treated.” It wasn’t the last time she experienced racism. She experienced it at HKMS. One of her friends has repeatedly been called the N- word while at HKHS.
On Sunday, May 31, School Superintendent Holly Hageman sent out a letter informing parents that someone who they believe is a HKMS student “wrote a racist comment onto another HKMS student’s digital yearbook page: ‘You are a N***** and a multi b****.'”

Because of the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, racism is at the forefront of conversation this week. We’ve seen statements from many organizations hit the public:

Ingrid M. Canady, Executive Director of the CT State Education Resource Center (SERC) sent out an email to subscribers, reaffirming the work that they have been doing for the last 15 years, trying to create resources for working on race in our school districts. “I was reminded about the importance of harnessing the power of WE. WE need one another now more than ever to combat racism, injustice, bigotry, and hate,” said Ms. Canady. “As an organization, SERC will continue developing a culture of learning and growth around structural racism and its implications for student learning and success. . . Together, WE will commit ourselves to real, lasting change so that our children can look back on this season of pain and remember us as heroes who did something about it.”

Goodspeed Musicals sent out an email blast to subscribers as well, “As Americans who believe in equality and justice for all, we cannot remain silent. . . Theatres have always had a role in cultural leadership and today we stand up against racism by speaking out. Further, we commit to taking a more active role in promoting the voices of black artists and administrators. We can do better. And we will.”

Superintendent Hageman said in her May 31 email to parents, “I want to be perfectly clear: Racism, bigotry, and bullying have no place in the RSD17 schools and will not be tolerated. In partnership with parents and the community, schools play a critical role in promoting healthy and respectful learning environments where every child feels welcomed, safe and proud of being who he or she is. Kids need for us all to help them understand that certain words, particularly the N-word and other words or symbols which marginalize and demean, are deeply hurtful and that kind of ignorance and disrespect needs to be effectively confronted. These types of behaviors are not representative of who we are as a school-community. Our students make great choices every day. But when these incidents occur, it is essential that everyone hears from all of us collectively that there is no place for this in our schools.”

What are we, as a community, going to do about it?

“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it,” says Ibram Kendi.

“The best thing we can do is to start listening, without talking or defending, to black and brown people sharing their eperiences and we struggle with this in our culture,” said Jill Henry. Jill and her friend Kayla Hiatt, also a Junior at HKHS, started an Instagram page, “The Good Has Bad.” The goal of the Instagram account is “to spread awareness on human rights, equality, and social justice.”

Hageman said to parents, “The high school directly addressed racism through impactful assemblies and planned to have ongoing conversations with the student body throughout the spring before classes were cancelled. As has been done in the past, the high school will bring in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) next year for their Names Can Really Hurt Us program. Similarly, over the last three years the middle school has incorporated anti-bias and bullying prevention education into its work with students through its Words Matter effort woven into student Town Hall meetings and was prepared to conduct assemblies like those at the high school just as schools closed. Prior to the closure, we had the ADL’s Becoming and Ally: Responding to Name-Calling and Bullying program at HKMS, and we plan to continue that program next year so that all middle school students have the learning experience.

Kate Novick of Killingworth suggested having librarians identify books and media that can educate our communities about racism.

“Issues related to race continue to be a national concern,” said Donna Hayward, Principal of HKHS.  “As our schools are subsets of the communities we serve, it is often the case that, when issues are heightened in our communities and nation which are highlighted in the media, our students grapple with these issues amongst themselves.  As racial tensions and incidents of intolerance have been on the rise across the country, I have noticed an increase in those same issues in our school.  However, I have great faith in our students. With the right supports and opportunity for conversation and education, our kids make good decisions. While schools cannot, on their own, solve long-standing problems that society itself has not solved, we will continue to plan to educate our students and staff, partner with parents and community resources, and confront racism according to best practice and district policy.”

Kedarjah noticed that while other schools celebrate Black History Month in February, HK doesn’t mention it at all. She also thinks that teachers should hold students accountable for their actions and their words.
Holly Hageman, RSD #17 School Superintendent said that besides the things outlined in her email to parents on May 31, that they also try to educate children in the elementary schools. “Through our K-5 Second Step curriculum (which teaches children prosocial skills), our social studies and health curricula, advisory classes, and developmental guidance program in addition to specialized training for staff and students through the ADL, we teach students to develop empathy, self and mutual respect, and encourage students to tell someone (staff member, principal, parent) if they aware of something concerning the health or safety of a fellow student.”

In the schools, Hageman said, “With the full commitment of our Board of Education, our administrators and every staff member, we will continue to educate and support all of our students in this pursuit. We will seek out best practices and resources as this kind of work is simply never completed. As Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ I maintain this aspiration for our society and for the schools I have served in. Together, we must continue to strive to make a better world for all of our children.”

Abbey Pop, HKHS Class of ’17 is organizing a peaceful protest/sit in at the Higganum Green on Saturday, June 20 at 1:00 p.m. “I think it’s important that small towns like us show solidarity to our neighbors around the state.” She started a Facebook page to coordinate the event.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Martin Luther King Jr.

As Ibram Kendi in How to Be an Antiracist says, “The question for each of us is: What side of history will we stand on? A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inactions or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. . . We can only strive to be one or the other.”

Edited 6/5/20 to remove one sentence that was misconstrued. 

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