'Peace Out' at RHS: Racist markings spark sidewalk chalk

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“Ridgefield Will Not Be Silent,” “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love Is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance” — words written in chalk can be more powerful than those etched in stone.

Those phrases of hope and tolerance, drawn next to symbols of equality and respect on sidewalks outside Ridgefield High School Monday, replaced the cement-scraped markings of bigotry and oppression that were found on the school tennis court a week earlier.

The school’s “Peace Out” event, which was intended to unite the community under an umbrella of peace, was more than just an exchange of messages. It was the first step RHS students took in dealing with — and healing — their emotions since the discovery, and removal, of racist graffiti last week.

“Because we have such an active student body, they’re coming up with some ideas on how they’d like to address that in creative ways,” RHS Principal Stacey Gross said of the artwork.

“I think the reaction … you know it’s sad and upsetting to all of us, but I think it was an appropriate reaction for the kids to have,” she said. “I think they understood the real problem with this kind of hate speech towards anyone.”

‘Kids will be kids’

The graffiti — a swastika and a racial slur scratched into the ground over the previous weekend, before Monday, March 27, according to police Capt. Jeff Kreitz — has created a fervent reaction from students, parents, and leaders in the religious community who have all spoken out against the symbols and the history of inhumanity they evoke.

“Installing more cameras will not remove the hatred or ignorance from the hearts and minds of the perpetrators,” said Rabbi David L. Reiner of Shir Shalom last week. “If we trivialize or normalize this (or any incident) by saying, ‘Kids will be kids,’ we suggest that this is acceptable behavior and ignore the impact that seeing and hearing about symbols of anti-Semitism and hatred has on our students and on us.  

“We seek to inspire each other and our students to live Jewish lives, proud of our heritage, informed by the moral and ethical values that have defined us as a people. Whether this was an act of intentional hatred and anti-Semitism or the result of ignorance and limit-testing, it is unacceptable in our community.”

A Ridgefield High junior also expressed his discomfort with the message and how his school’s administration handled it, and previous situations involving racism at RHS.

“A single sentence was reserved to also mention a ‘racially biased’ message that was found next to the swastika,” the student wrote in response to Gross’s letter that was sent to students and parents Wednesday, March 29. “While ensuing paragraphs discussed the swastika at length, no other mention of this second message was made.”

“Despite what the administration may want you to believe, this second message wasn't simply racially biased. A hate crime was committed, an abhorrent racial slur was used, and when the community needed the administration to step in and take a definitive stance against this hatred, they fell silent.

“This isn't the first time Dr. Gross and the administration have failed to address racism rooted in a fear of being different.”

He also spoke about the nature of these attacks by the student body.

“An important distinction to understand before grasping the situation is that quite often racism at Ridgefield High School isn't intended to be racist — it’s intended to troll, incite reactions, show a certain degree of cacophonous ‘edge’ to gain the admiration of peers. Saying offensively racist comments to get a buzz has become a rite of passage in the status quo.”

Embarrassed and hurt

In the days that followed, Gross received many emails from students and parents alike.

“They’re all really upset. I think they don’t feel it’s reflective of who we are as a school and as a culture and as group,” she said. “They’re embarrassed and hurt.”

She said a large part of the feedback has been about looking toward solutions — like the “Peace Out” event Monday, which called students together to oppose hateful speech and have important conversations about race and religion.

“I think students really appreciated the fact that I wrote that message to them,” said Gross.

“Then they had an opportunity to speak with their teachers in class about what had happened.”

This is not the first time racist graffiti has appeared on school property, the principal said.

She recalled a similar incident three or four years ago, which put in motion the school’s collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League and its Names Day program.

The school has continued to focus on building partnerships with local agencies and congregations to help address and prevent these types of situations, she told The Press.

Like Gross, Superintendent Karen Baldwin sent a letter to parents March 29 that insisted RHS would not become “a platform for hatred and intolerance of any group.  

“Furthermore, we will not be bystanders to humiliation, and we will not be silent to the suffering of others.

“I continue to seek the support of parents, students, community leaders, and our local clergy to join in ending this behavior. The district is in close communication with the Ridgefield Police Department and this incident is under investigation. I have been in communication with leaders of our local clergy as well as our municipal leaders, and we continue to partner to send strong and aligned messages to the community we serve.”

Jewish community

Following Rabbi Reiner’s message, Ridgefield’s Jewish community has also responded.

The Chabad Jewish Center of Ridgefield launched a mezuzah campaign to make sure that every Jewish home in the region has a mezuzah — a sacred handwritten parchment scroll that is mounted on the doorpost.

According to Jewish belief, the mezuzah protects individuals from harm and hate.

The center is offering free mezuzahs to those who can’t afford them, and replacing any that aren’t kosher.

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray of Shir Shalom wrote a letter about the importance of teaching the Holocaust.

“Reading and studying the diaries of the Holocaust can bring us closer to the hearts and souls that were lost. Those brave enough to defy the Nazis and write down the daily atrocities for future generations,” she wrote.

“Risking one’s life to write something you’re not even sure will survive you. The least we can do is read them and remember.”

Police are still investigating who is responsible for the incident, according to Capt. Kreitz. He  urged anyone with information to contact the Ridgefield Police Department at 203-438-6531.