Another swastika at high school prompts program for town officials

Another swastika at the high school — the fifth message of hate and bigotry found in Ridgefield in the last year, three at RHS, two in Ballard Park — and town officials have decided to try to do something more than condemn the work of the nameless vandals.

“We feel that there’s an undertone in our community that we need to, first, as leaders, begin to address, and hopefully be able to solicit the understanding and compassion of parents to help us become a true community — accepting of everyone,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

“I’ve had several meetings with the rabbis in our community concerning the anti-Semitic statements or issues we’ve been having, from a swastika in the schools to the park — incidents in our own park, including some racial slurs — that leads me to believe that, as a community, we need to pull together.”

It’ll start with a program for town and school leaders next Tuesday, Dec. 5, with guest presenters from the Anti-Defamation League, the century-old national organization dedicated to fighting “anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”

Invitations have gone out to town government and school leaders — the school superintendent and principals, town department heads, board and commission members.

“We have approximately 30 responses. We cannot accommodate more than 50,” Marconi said Monday, Nov. 27.

Marconi has been sharing concerns with local rabbis for a while — and the incidents date back to Nov. 19, 2016.

The first was the swastika [in the park], then we had some anti-Semitic remarks spray-painted on the stage for CHIRP, as well as racial slurs,” Marconi said.

And there were similar graffiti incidents at the high school.

Marconi first spoke to The Press about the ADL program Nov. 22 — a day after Ridgefield High School Principal Dr. Stacey Gross notified parents with an email that another swastika had been found. She sent around a message that had been read to students and staff over the school public address system.

“Unfortunately, another unacceptable incident of prejudice has occurred on school grounds. We discovered a swastika drawn on the inside of a classroom door. A full investigation has just been completed and reported to the Ridgefield police school resource officer,” Gross said.

“As we have previously stated, our school stands for respect and inclusion, a place where all are welcome and appreciated. Incidents such as these go against our School Mission Statement and who we are as a community. We will continue our partnerships with the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center to address these issues.

“We are counting on you to share in the ownership of creating a positive RHS culture and community by speaking up if you become aware of any act that goes against our school values. Please stand with us in denouncing this behavior and continuing to build a positive school community.”

Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin discussed the incident briefly at the school board’s meeting Monday, Nov. 27.

“This does represent just the actions of a few,” Baldwin said. “Internally, in the district, we’re working with our curriculum council to sort of conduct an audit of our teaching of tolerance. …

“But we do take this seriously, and will continue to partner with the greater community.”

Under investigation

Ridgefield police Capt. Jeff Kreitz, the department’s public information officer, sought the public’s cooperation.

“Unfortunately, we have had a handful of these incidents in town in the recent past. All of the incidents are under investigation and the person(s) responsible for these acts have not been identified,” he said.

“With that, we always encourage the public’s assistance and request that anyone with information please contact police headquarters at 203-438-6531 or the anonymous tip line at 203-431-2345. We handle the criminal investigation; however, we do work cooperatively with the school.”

Rabbi David Reiner of Ridgefield’s Congregation Shir Shalom shared his dismay over the events in an email to The Press.

“I continue to be saddened by these ongoing incidents in Ridgefield as well as the surrounding communities,” he said. “This is the fifth incident in Ridgefield, and there have been several in Wilton, especially in the past month, as well as in Lewisboro, Redding, and Danbury. …

“I am actually running out of things to say, which is a statement by itself! My perception is that our members (and I) are saddened following each incident, and also strengthened in our resolve to be Jewish and proud of our religion and heritage. We are disappointed and sad, but not scared or uneasy. Whether each incident was intended to incite fear or just an act of ignorance and stupidity, we continue to be vigilant and proud of who we are. …

“While I hope that each incident is the result of ignorance and not inspired by animus, I cannot ‘write it off’ or accept that periodic symbols of hatred are expected or reasonable. We live in a wonderful, idyllic community where people are friendly and welcoming, and I am proud to call Ridgefield my home. … And this is not just about swastikas or anti-Semitism: Any language or symbols of hatred are unacceptable.”

In a Thanksgiving message to his congregation that included news of the latest swastika found at RHS, Rabbi Reiner quoted President George Washington’s words to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., in 1790: “Happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Reiner added, “I am happy and thankful to live in a country and a community where bigotry is given no sanction and persecution no assistance.”

Marconi sees next week’s program for town officials as launching a broader initiative against intolerance.

“My discussions are with not just the rabbis but with other members of clergy,” Marconi said. “And I will be attending the clergy association meeting for the month of December. The program on the fifth is the beginning of what we hope to see in our community in terms of education, understanding of the diversity of our community, and how we must all live, work and practice our faiths freely.”