Schools dispute King Day speech allegations

Racism and other controversial topics aren’t off-limits for the high school’s newspaper, school authorities say, and they dispute a suggestion the school sought to discipline student writers opposing bigotry — rather than students indulging in it — as “false, inaccurate and troubling.”

The disputed portrayal of the school administration came in a Martin Luther King Day address given by Mark Robinson, founder of Ridgefield’s 20-year-old King Day celebration, during this year’s observances at the Ridgefield Playhouse.

In the course of a long address on the value of “agitators” who pushed society to live up to its ideals — like Dr. King, comedian Dick Gregory, and the women of the ‘MeToo’ movement — Robinson offered the following version of some events that took place last fall in the world of Ridgefield High School students.

“Recently, there was a video that spread through social media like a brushfire, of a Ridgefield High School alum painted in blackface with the headline ‘Nigger,’” Robinson said. “A student at the high school wrote and published an editorial condemning this offensive video and called upon the school community to rise above narrow-minded hatefulness. And the school administration took immediate action, not against the author of the blackface video, but against the author of the editorial. The school administration felt that the author of the editorial was an unnecessary agitator.”

While confirming that student writers for the high school publication, The Ridgefielder, were called to the principal’s office to discuss journalistic practices, school authorities insist that the assertion that the author of the editorial lamenting the blackface incident was punished for making a stand against racism is “ugly and wholly inaccurate.”

An inquiry by The Press to Ridgefield High School Principal Stacey Gross resulted in a reply from Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin.

Baldwin pointed to two aspects of Robinson’s account as false. One was the assertion that it was a “Ridgefield High School alum” who was painted in blackface in the social media image. And Baldwin vehemently disputed Robinson’s conclusion that the administration “felt that the author of the editorial was an unnecessary agitator” and took action against her, rather than kids involved in the blackface video.

“Those statements, and the specific reference to school administration, are damaging to Dr. Gross’s professional reputation and the strong and positive relationships she has developed across this community with municipal leaders, clergy, service organizations, parents, and students,” Baldwin said. “Mr. Robinson’s statements are ugly and wholly inaccurate.

“It is important to know that neither Dr. Gross, nor I, spoke with Mr. Robinson or have any familiarity with his work organizing the MLK program in town.

“In accordance with the Family and Educational Rights to Privacy Act, we are unable to comment on the specific incident because it involves RHS students,” Baldwin said. “I can assure you that the administration worked with the families and the students and took appropriate action in accordance with district policies.”

“The purpose of Dr. Gross’s meeting with the editorial writers was to discuss the newspaper’s ‘fact-checking’ practices, and have a dialogue with them regarding the information that wasn’t fully accurate in the editorial and help them to grow in this domain.

“The RHS administration fully supports the inclusion of sensitive, negative, or difficult topics in the school newspaper, as it promotes opportunities for civil discourse and broadening of understanding relative to the diverse beliefs and perspectives within our school community,” Baldwin said.

In December, when The Press first reported about the social media image involving blackface, the administration told The Press that it had informed the police of the matter, and had launched a series of initiatives to promote diversity and student understanding of its value to society.

A student in Ridgefield’s A Better Chance program credited Gross with talking and listening to the minority students in the program after the incident, saying the principal went to the “ABC House” to have dinner with them and discuss it. The ABC students are also working with the school on ways to improve its approach to Black History Month.

Writers’ views

The author of the editorial in The Ridgefielder, RHS senior Callie McQuilkin, told The Press that while she wasn’t “suspended or given detention” for her writing, being called to the principal’s office to discuss it felt to her like being in trouble at school.

“There was some backlash from the administration for my editorial,” said McQuilkin, who was an intern at The Press last summer. “About 20 minutes after the November edition of the paper went out on the shelves, I was pulled from class and called to Dr. Gross’ office. I was surprised and, frankly, confused when I found out she wanted to talk about my piece. I hadn’t thought the editorial and its suggestions to the administration were all that contentious.

“Dr. Gross seemed displeased with the piece for two reasons. First, she cited the fact that the Twitter/Snapchat incident occurred online, not in the physical high school. I thought this was strange because in the past, The Ridgefielder has covered numerous topics ranging beyond the school walls, from national politics to parking pass prices in other Connecticut districts.

“Additionally, the controversy’s relevance to the RHS community is blatantly apparent. The tweet at the center of the editorial — and much of the subsequent commentary — explicitly references Ridgefield High School,” McQuilkin said.

“Second, it seemed Dr. Gross didn’t like me suggesting to the administration that it directly contact students, rather than parents, when student-perpetrated racist or anti-Semitic incidents occur. She expressed the desire to have been contacted about the article before it was published.

“From my point of view, it looked like Dr. Gross felt the editorial was an attack on the administration,” McQuilkin said. “That was not my intent. If anything, the piece was meant to defend the school, affirming that the vast majority of the student body is above posting rude and derogatory comments on social media.”

Fact-checking dispute

Another Ridgefielder writer, RHS junior Tarini Krishna — who’d interviewed and written about a girl who’d found a swastika as graffiti on a desk in the high school — was also called to the principal’s office for a discussion.

She, too, was troubled by that.

“I was in the middle of my free period when one of the administrators came and got me from the library. I was so confused because I have never been called into the principal’s office before until that moment,” she told The Press.

Krishna said Gross had heatedly disputed the accuracy of one aspect of her story — the question of whether teachers had received training to handle such incidents — and had asked about The Ridgefielder’s fact-checking practices.

She said Gross asked who fact-checks the magazine’s articles. “I assured her that the articles are critically read and thoroughly edited by the editors — but that response was not sufficient enough at the time,” Krishna said.

“No concrete disciplinary actions were taken against me besides the classic scare tactics of intimidation and inflammatory language.”

Her perception of the administration’s attitude is different from Baldwin’s statement that school authorities support student journalists covering controversial topics.

“Ever since the revival of the RHS magazine in the 2016-2017 school year, writers on the magazine have been under the scrutiny and attack from the administration. After both Callie and I were called down to speak with Dr. Gross, there was fear for the future of The Ridgefielder — would the magazine get censored? Would we have to send all of our articles to the administration before we print?

“Neither has happened (yet) but I can say for sure that when I wrote a poem about diversity for the next issue there was a fear inside me that I could get in trouble,” Krishna said. “It’s ridiculous, I should not have to be afraid to write about the virtues of diversity and individualism. I am doubtful that The Ridgefielder will ever be fully censored, but some students may demonstrate more caution with the topics they write about.”

Altered approach?

Both student writers speculated that coverage in The Ridgefielder, and the talks they had with Gross, may have led the administration to alter its approach to such incidents.

“The week after both were published, Dr. Gross came over the loudspeaker to discuss another swastika found on a classroom door, commencing her speech with something along the lines of ‘I think students like when I directly address incidents like this,’ which I took as a nod to The Ridgefielder,” McQuilkin said. “Past anti-Semitic or racist incidents had not been addressed in the same transparent way.”

Krishna said, “I had raised concerns that the school had not informed the student body about the incident I wrote about, but after my conversation with Dr. Gross, an announcement was made during the day regarding the most recent (and unfortunate) occurrence. The administration may not have liked what I printed, but they did take my advice.”

Mark Robinson declined to comment on his statement at the King Day ceremonies or the administration’s reaction to it.