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NAACP To NPS: Why weren’t we told about racist slurs?

Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams attends the Soundview Village ribbon cutting on year ago. (File photo)

Updated, 5:44 p.m., Nov. 2: Headline and photo changed.

NORWALK, Conn. – A swastika and the “N word” were found recently in a Brien McMahon High School computer lab.

While, in response, Principal Scott Hurwitz plans several activities to encourage more understanding between Brien McMahon students and is working with the Anti-Defamation League to develop more, Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams is asking why her organization was not consulted and why it took weeks for Hurwitz to let the community know.

“We would also like to know how Mr. Hurwitz proposes to change the culture of the school to embrace everyone,” Penn-Williams wrote in a Wednesday letter to Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.  “This is not the first incident at McMahon.  As the NAACP President, I have heard many complaints from Hispanic and African Americans about incidents of similar nature occurring at the school and nothing being done by Mr. Hurwitz or him not adequately addressing the issues.”

 

‘Troubling and disappointing’

Hurwitz, in an undated letter to the community, said that a half-dollar-sized swastika had been drawn on the seat of the chair, and then “last week… someone rearranged the letters on the keyboard in the same computer lab to spell the N-word.” Norwalk Police were called and the incidents documented, because, “We hope that we can identify the student who is responsible so we can help him or her to understand the hurt caused to individuals and the damage done to our community.”

There’s no evidence that the incidents are connected, according to Hurwitz. They are “both troubling and disappointing (and) have a caused us to look a little more closely at our climate and prompted us to take steps to make a community even stronger.”

“The teachers who teach in the classroom where the incident occurred will conduct a restorative circles with their students to discuss the incidence and to address student concerns,” he explained, adding that NPS is consulting with Anti-Defamation League representatives on upcoming programs. “An upcoming house lesson will address the power that words and symbols have toward an individual and community,” and on Nov. 20 “schoolwide assemblies will be held to recognize and celebrate students to demonstrate excellence in a variety of areas including character, work ethic, and academics.”

Finally, some of the activities held during the annual Climate Day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving will be aimed at “creating a positive climate, respecting others and their differences, and making connections and finding similarities.”

The incidents are “troubling” but “not typical” and “do not reflect the daily experiences of students at Brien McMahon,” he said.

 

‘You could have also considered…’

Penn-Williams in her Wednesday letter said a parent gave her the communication from Hurwitz. She wrote:

“Why wasn’t the NAACP contacted?  We also have access to programs throughout the state that support organizations who experience discrimination and biases.  You could have also considered the National Urban League, American Civil Liberties Union, or the Education Office for Civil Rights to come in and assist the Anti-Defamation League. One of the organizations in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League would have provided a tremendous amount of support to the school and the entire district.  We would like you to know that the NAACP is available and happy to support the Anti-Defamation League in working with the school and district.  How soon will the Anti-Defamation League be in the school to assist Mr. Hurwitz?  How will the activities and results be communicated to the parents and community?”

She had learned that the swastika was found on Oct. 7, the day before Yom Kippur, she said, asking, “Why is Mr. Hurwitz sending a letter now to the community and not right after the incident?  This letter looks as though it just happened.  There seems to be no sense of urgency or understanding on Mr. Hurwitz’s part.”

She also asked, “Who did the investigation since there is no longer a Human Relations Officer in the district?  What is the process for investigating this type of behavior? What were the findings?  As you know, federal laws prohibits this type of discrimination and harassment.  This type of activity seriously traumatizes children who experience or witness these acts and a zero tolerance policy must be implemented across our schools.”

 

 

NPS responds
“We agree wholeheartedly that all our schools should be inclusive and welcoming to all children. Words, symbols and all expressions of hate are simply unacceptable,” Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams wrote Thursday to NancyOnNorwalk. “In a school the size of McMahon, gathering accurate, actionable information can take time, especially when it involves students.  Mr. Hurwitz communicated once he was in a position to do so. The timing of his message in no way indicates a lack of urgency.”

She continued:

“While there are many worthwhile resources and partners to choose from, the ADL has programs such as No Place for Hate that we believe will complement and enhance what the school already plans to offer. A team from McMahon will observe this program in action at another school and determine if it makes sense to schedule for Norwalk.

“As Mr. Hurwitz noted, while these incidents may not be typical for the school, they are troubling and will be addressed.”

4 comments

Sherelle Harris November 1, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Last Tuesday, the organization CONECT held a candidates forum on bias and racial disparity.
https://www.ctinsider.com/news/thehour/article/Board-of-Education-candidates-spar-over-racial-14577828.php
This morning, we learn of racial incidents at a local school that were allegedly not reported. https://www.ctinsider.com/news/thehour/article/NAACP-leader-Norwalk-schools-should-have-told-us-14686606.php?src=nwkhpcp&_ga=2.80255767.1015161261.1572632019-1913608098.1572632019

When I read the article, I was incensed that the incident was reported and help was sought when it happened to one group, but allegedly not reported when it happened to the other. I am not an ostentatious person, but in the past I have privately let Jewish Rabbis know that I understand their frustration and pain, so this is certainly not about division. It is about respect.

Because I wanted to hear from those who would know, I wrote to some people in one email to ask what happened. I then took a chance to reach out to another leader in a separate email. The latter responded this morning. An outline of my response to that response is below.

At present, of the leaders to whom I’ve reached out via the sharing of The Hour’s article, you are the only one to respond so far. The lack of response–not even a simple email stating that things are being checked out–is telling and often the cause of unnecessary friction. I’ve been down that road before. The climate really needs to change, or I will begin to believe a quote I read: “The new racism is to deny racism exists.”

The children deserve better on our watch!

I try to like/serve equally, but when things like this happen repeatedly and then are denied or brushed aside by adult leaders, it forces my/our hand(s) to act. It sets a bad precedent and my/our motto becomes: We will gladly let down our guard when others stop giving us reasons to keep it up.

While I do not believe all Black people are perfect –some fall in line and perpetuate the notion that Black people need only to follow and not lead–I personally, hope that the gist of the article below is something any leader of our diverse (a word we love to tout) city will understand.

https://educationpost.org/white-people-need-to-understand-that-helping-is-not-the-same-as-controlling/

I question why the NAACP’s help was not sought.

It bothers me that the people who fight unequivocally for the rights of marginalized or ostracized cultures are often demonized. Many do not receive the courtesy of a response, or they receive a backhanded response at best. Those of us who try to give people the benefit of the doubt are taken for granted or laughed at in the end. We know there are some race hustlers, as my parents would put it, and we know that there are some who do not take the time to gather facts before speaking. However, there are many who are not race hustlers and many who do gather facts; they are just tired of the nonsense. On another note, I have always not liked the word “minority” though I find myself using it. Let’s find another word.

Note to self: Stop using the word minority.

Not to leaders: I am having a debate within myself about a Nelson Mandela quote in which I once really believed: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite…

Leaders set the tone and culture of a place. It’s not that I give children a pass, but children will be children and a lot of what they learn comes from their surroundings. Adults are in place to guide them. It’s the climate that we as adults set, and it is what we as we adults do to correct behaviors that makes the difference. It’s not that we adults have all the answers or that we are always right, but shame on us if we don’t have people in our camps or on our teams who will pull us aside to blatantly tell us when we are wrong.

Many of us studied C.S. Lewis in high school and many of love “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. There is a magnificent C.S. Lewis quote about progress that I still love: “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

Sherelle Harris

Niz November 1, 2019 at 4:59 pm

This comment is alarming, “…I have heard many complaints from Hispanic and African Americans about incidents of similar nature occurring at the school and nothing being done…” As for me, I know of some serious incidents at Norwalk HS and NO ONE IS TELLING, when I try to reach out to discuss it, I am told it is not true. For the discussion to be a matter of review and how to handle it, etc.. is like say what??!! shouldn’t public schools in cities like Norwalk already have staff and a system in place for bullying, gang situations, racists, drug dealing, addiction, mental health, etc… why is it still a topic of HOW TO HANDLE IT? WOW

John ONeill November 3, 2019 at 12:26 pm

I truly wish Brenda would be as upset about resources being reallocated away from African Americans in Norwalk because our elected leaders over the past 10 years have been doing ZERO about getting Hartford to support our ELL programs in Norwalk? The effect on students has been a helluva lot greater than being notified late about a slur. That being said, she does have a point.
To Brenda: Please step up and raise hell about lack of support on ELL from State/Fed because we ALL are paying the price for politicians being asleep on this issue over the past decade. Please “Walk the Walk” I can assure you it will only get worse for us going forward. Lastly, please don’t blame Trump administration because they’ve given as much as Obama administration. ZERO!! Now let’s get out there and raise hell!

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