After ‘heartbreaking’ allegations of racism in Fairfield schools, NAACP helps make a plan

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Exterior shot of Fairfield Warde High School

Exterior shot of Fairfield Warde High School

Cathy Zuraw / ST

FAIRFIELD — Officials and residents want more to be done to combat racism in town.

School officials, members of the police department and the Rev. D Stanley Lord, president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP, met Monday after two brothers reported they were the victims of two separate allegedly racist incidents involving students from Warde and Ludlowe high schools.

Superintendent Mike Cummings said the group “had an extremely productive discussion focusing on how we move forward. This is just the beginning of our work together to support the students and staff of Fairfield Public Schools and we appreciate having (NAACP) as a resource.”

The officials had a solution to part of the problem of what appears to be student insensitivity: “We want every school to be open to diversity training,” Lord said Tuesday.

Lord offered the NAACP as a resource for the district and will lead sensitivity training with staff and students on biases, the cultures of all people and why words matter, he said.

College students from NAACP chapters at University of Bridgeport, Southern Connecticut State University, University of New Haven and Housatonic Community College will lead sessions with the public school students in the fall.

And Lord said he also recommended that administrations of all departments or agencies that interact with the public, including the police, should take the training.

“We have to start at the top,” he said.

On May 7, police received a report that a 16-year-old Fairfield Warde student posted a Snapchat of a Black classmate with a racial slur.

After an investigation, the student was charged with second-degree breach of peace and ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race. School officials said they took disciplinary action, though details can’t be released because of student privacy rules.

On Monday, police received information on a second alleged racial incident that was described as happening May 8. It is currently under investigation by the police department’s school safety unit, according to Police Lt. Antonio Granata.

“This investigation pertains to a potential racial slur used during a phone conversation amongst juvenile(s),” he said.

He said it’s unknown at this time if the two incidents are connected.

“As with all complaints, the incident will be investigated to the fullest extent possible and any applicable statues would be applied,” he said.

Lord said it’s hard to say what the schools need to do to address the two incidents until the second investigation is concluded. However, he said the national NAACP organization plans to call for the charges in the first case to be elevated to a hate crime. A press conference is set for next week.

The two school investigations are not the only complaints that Fairfield residents have engaged in racist behavior.

Fairfield Police launched a hate crime investigation last month after a person used “racial epithets and racist remarks” during a video conference meeting of the Racial Equity and Justice Task Force.

On Monday, town officials said the incidents show the need for the task force and the need for the town to take action.

“I, of course, stand in complete opposition and condemn racism in all forms,” First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said.

She called the racist incidents “heartbreaking,” especially those at the schools, but said it’s a reminder that schools and families should teach tolerance and practice it in everyday life.

“This latest incident is certainly a teachable moment for our parents and educators and entire community,” Kupchick said.

In a letter to families last week, Fairfield Warde principal Paul A. Cavanna announced the formation of the Warde Unity Coalition to foster unity in the school community. He said the group will focus on issues of discrimination.

He also spoke to students after the Snapchat incident, among other things covering federal, state and Board of Education policies on discrimination.

Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz, who also co-chairs the task force, said she would have been shocked to learn of school incidents 10 months ago, but has since heard other firsthand accounts from residents.

“I hope people can hear this and receive this message and not get defensive, but rather open their hearts and minds and realize that we each can take responsibility for making it better and more inclusive,” Lefkowitz said.

On Monday, Aimee Guerrero, a Filipina American, shared her own experience when she moved to Fairfield from Stamford about 20 years ago.

“Shortly after we got here, I thought we made a huge mistake because I could go days without seeing another person of color,” she said. The town’s ethnic diversity has only increased marginally since then, she said.

Guerrero said she organized a recent gathering to protest against the rise of racism and discrimination toward Asian people and Pacific Islanders.

“I was so proud of our youth speakers — five of them — for sharing their stories of pain and visibility and feeling othered,” she said. “Now, all five of them grew up in Fairfield. They grew up in the Fairfield school systems and they all had experiences of not being thought of as American.”