Ridgefield schools take on bigotry
Racism, anti-semitism and other prejudice can’t be erased like a mistaken answer on a math test. But the schools are trying.
Asked about a racist Snapchat image posted by students on social media — a white boy in blackface, captioned by a racial slur — Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin outlined a 10-point response to intolerance initiated at Ridgefield High School, and described “systemic and ongoing strategies that are in place to provide a safe, inclusive and respectful school climate across all of our schools.”
What students do in the realm of social media, on their own time, isn’t really within school authorities’ control, Baldwin said — without questioning that the racist incident involved and reflects upon the school community.
“It did not occur at RHS nor at a school-sponsored event — it happened in a private setting, thereby limiting the district’s purview for response,” Baldwin said. “However, due to the significant disruption that ensued from the posting for our students and the school community, we did respond in accordance with the RPS policies and reported the information we had to the Ridgefield Police Department.”
Police Capt. Jeff Kreitz said, “The post was investigated by our agency and the individuals involved were interviewed. The individuals involved included an RHS student as well as two young adults. Through the investigation it was determined that no crime was committed.”
Baldwin cited parents’ “connectedness” and “engagement” toward Ridgefield schools.
“This is a key strength that we need to leverage to assist us in combating hate and prejudice,” she said.
Ridgefield High School’s efforts against bigotry range from assembly presentations to open student discussions under teacher leadership, Student government, the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, and outside groups like the Anti-Defamation League are involved.
Baldwin outlined 10 initiatives:
- All sophomores attended a Names Can Really Hurt Us — or “Names Day” — program presented by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Dec. 6. “It was a huge success with tremendous, empowered feedback from 10th grade students, the 11th/12th grade student facilitators and the teacher facilitators,” Baldwin said. Sophomores had Names Day activities in teacher-guided advisory program discussions, where all grades will address bullying, cyber-bullying, subtle prejudices, and “What would you do?” scenarios.
- A follow-up “Names Day” meeting with the ADL is scheduled, and RHS’s Unity Club and Gay-Straight Alliance are doing follow-up programs, while Principal Dr. Stacy Gross’s monthly “What’s Up Doc?” sessions “remain a forum for students to discuss issues of discrimination and prejudice,” Baldwin said.
- Affirmative quotes on kindness and mindfulness — some from students — are broadcast on school TVs, in morning announcements, and on Twitter.
- The school is considering an ADL “leadership program for students” this spring: “Becoming an Ally: Interrupting Name-Calling and Bullying Student Training.”
- Staff training on teaching tolerance will continue, using many resources — the ADL, UConn, the Women’s Center, possibly Southern Poverty Law Center.
- The school is “completing a curriculum/activity audit” addressing tolerance, prejudice, bias, and acceptance.
- Student government is “assessing school activities to look for hidden biases,” Baldwin said.
- Principal Gross and the Social Studies Department are looking to improve Black History Month programming, as suggested by students in the A Better Chance program.
- The administration will “continue to state clear behavioral expectations and consequences for actions that … reflect prejudice/bias/hate,” Dr. Baldwin said.
- And RHS will “report issues to the Ridgefield police for them to determine their need to investigate,” she said.
Programs throughout the school system address issues underlying racist behavior.
Parents, students and staff at all schools are surveyed on “the 13 dimensions of school climate” every two years, Baldwin said.
She reviewed findings of this “Comprehensive School Climate Inventory” (CSCI). “Safety rules and norms” are rated high in all schools. “The ability to develop well-communicated, clearly understood rules and norms about physical violence, verbal abuse, and harassment is a foundational strength that we continue to leverage,” Baldwin said.
Still, kids are tough on each other, and the survey suggests where future efforts might focus.
“Sense of social-emotional security is a universal area for potential improvement across all populations district-wide,” Baldwin said.
Fortunately, there’s an approach known to work.
“Research has shown that cultivating upstanders is a powerful way to drastically reduce bullying and harassment in a visible, high-impact, long-term way,” Baldwin said.
The schools plan to continue support for students’ social-emotional security. They’ll work with the Anti-Defamation League on future programs but will also use everyday activities — the “Responsive Classroom” approach to behavior in elementary schools, the regular “advisory program” discussions in middle and high school grades, and “health education programming.” There will also be continued staff training and “school improvement planning and goal setting.”