Fairfield high school students walk out to protest racism

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — Students streamed out of Fairfield Ludlowe High School on Monday morning, protesting recent racist incidents and calling for changes.

A similar action took place across town at Fairfield Warde.

Between 500 and 600 students participated in Ludlowe’s event, which lasted a little under three hours and included scheduled speeches, as well as an opportunity for students to share their own experiences, said Andrew McKinnis, a Ludlowe junior and one of the organizers.

“It’s encouraging that people decided to walk out,” said Sophia Mughal, a Ludlowe senior and one of the organizers.

Both she and McKinnis said they didn’t expect that big of a turnout.

The student-led walkouts were organized last week after two brothers reported they were the victims of two separate allegedly racist incidents involving students from Warde and Ludlowe high schools. The Ludlowe event was organized by Youth for Equity and the Warde one was organized by Fairfield Warde Voices for Equity.

“We wanted to ensure the power remained with the students and the message didn’t change in any way and we could control the message,” Mughal said.

On May 7, police received a report that a 16-year-old Fairfield Warde student allegedly 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.

The second incident took place May 8 and involved reports of students possibly using a racial slur in a phone conversation, police said. It’s under investigation.

Mughal said students were disappointed, but not surprised by the “egregious and abhorrent” incidents. She said racism is a problem in the schools and though not overt, there are microaggressions.

“This is not really an isolated incident,” she said.

She said people tend to be comfortable with the status quo but she is starting to see a shift among her peers, with more students calling out their friends for racist behavior.

Mughal and McKinnis said the youth-led Fairfield Equity Coalition presented a list of 10 action items to the school board in December as part of a 130-plus-page report and would like to see some of those changes enacted.

Chief among them are curriculum changes, including moving away from a Eurocentric focus and adding other perspectives so that students can see themselves in what is taught. This includes struggles and triumphs, Mughal said.

Shifting the punitive approach to more restorative justice practices is also a key request. This approach would put the action on the larger community so the students involved don’t feel isolated. Mughal said within Connecticut, students of color receive infractions disproportionately more than their white peers and the group hopes to change that.

Another request is to hire and retain more teachers of color.

Mughal said the Fairfield Equity Coalition has asked for a special school board meeting to discuss the proposed changes.

“I’m really proud of our students for taking a stand for something that really matters, for change to happen in their community,” said Fairfield Ludlowe Principal Greg Hatzis. “If we can’t allow that opportunity for students to have the chance to speak, then the dialogue can’t continue and that’s a really important step.”

Hatzis said school staff realize there is work to be done in addressing their own views and inherent biases, as well as helping teachers be able to discuss these issues more openly with their classes. He said there are a lot of goodhearted people who work at the school who want to help and are now looking for guidance in how to do so.

The district has a team in place to work on that guidance over the summer so that they can approach it fresh in the new school year.

“It doesn’t diminish the importance of it,” Hatzis said. “We just want to do it right.”

The NAACP has also committed to being a resource for the district and plans to host training sessions and programs next year.

Some members of Inclusive Parents of Fairfield also gathered outside of the fence near Ludlowe’s football field Monday morning to support the students and show the community as a whole must join against racism.

“We’re here to stand in solidarity of the students and to say we won’t stand for racism in this town,” said Sarah Evans, one of the group’s 278 members. “The recent attacks don’t represent what we are as a community.”

She said parents owe it to the students and the families who were the victims of the incidents to speak out.

“I commend them, but I don’t want to have to see them do it alone,” Evans said of the students organizing Monday’s events. “It’s time for parents to step up to acknowledge what’s going on in our schools and do something about it.”

McKinnis said the groups already work together on a number of events and items.

The two student organizations, the Fairfield Equity Coalition, Inclusive Parents of Fairfield, the Working for Racial Justice Pathway and First Church Fairfield are all hosting a community vigil at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to mark the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death. It will be at First Church Fairfield, 148 Beach Road.