Fairfield high schools discuss, react to video of student using racial slur

FAIRFIELD — After a video of a Fairfield Ludlowe High School student using a racial slur directed at black students went viral in the school community last week, community members said the student body met for discussion with varying levels of interest.

The video, taken during an annual boys’ soccer game against the district’s other high school, was originally posted by a second Ludlowe student on her Snapchat Story.

In response, Ludlowe, as well as Warde, held small group “advisory sessions” for staff and students to discuss tolerance and race relations before the end of the week. Both high school headmasters also met with the senior class of each school to talk about what the incident meant for the school community.

Ludlowe senior Madeline Horrigan, who has lived in Fairfield for six years, said she was surprised by the number of students she saw “irritated and complaining” in class about being required to have the discussion at the assembly and saying it was “stupid.”

“Being conscious of our history and morals, that along with

self-discipline, that needs to be exercised. Otherwise people just stop caring about everything,” Horrigan said. “At the least the attitude that day was an example of that.”

Horrigan spoke at last Friday’s assembly, as did Ludlowe senior Ryan Gove. Gove said during the first half of the Swedish Cup game, anti-Semitic chants could be heard directed at a player on Warde’s team and, during the second half, a racist chant was directed at Mexican people. He said he asked fellow students to raise their hands if they participated in the chants.

“I basically said it’s not really an isolated incident,” Gove said. “One girl took the fall for a societal issue.”

Gove has found the general student opinion to be that the use of the racial slur was terrible, “but I don’t think it surprised a lot of people,” he said. Gove said he believes the spotlight has been put on one girl’s use of a single racial slur, while it is a more widespread issue.

Adults react

Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy received the video at 10 p.m. on Oct. 19 and released a statement later that night. Disciplinary action was subsequently taken against both the student who used the slur in the video and the student who posted it.

Warde teacher and Fairfield Education Association President Bob Smoler said he believes the district handled the incident with the “due seriousness it deserved.” He said the high schools worked to further school discussions on tolerance.

“I think for some students it opened up some sensitivities,” Smoler said, of the reaction at Warde. “Other students thought we were making a big deal about nothing.”

Asked about student reactions to in-school discussion, Tracy said, “All I can say is, personally, it is a significant issue. That’s why I think it’s important we’ve had the conversations with our students we’ve already had and why I’m planning to promote a larger conversation with not only students, but adults in the community, about what this means.”

Ludlowe PTA President Alison Jones Allen and Warde PTA President Karen Secrist emphasized the PTAs work collaboratively and the high schools share a similar sense of collaboration. They expressed trust in the school’s plans to address the matter of the use of a racial slur.

As high school parents, Secrist said seeing the video and hearing the use of a racial slur was “shocking,” and Allen said she felt immediate “horror and embarrassment.”

A national issue

Gove hopes this will be a chance to talk about bigger problems, rather than the single use of a racial slur. The Ludlowe senior said similar issues exist in other areas but it manifests itself “blatantly” in Fairfield and the surrounding area.

Horrigan called the student’s use of a racial slur part of a “large, systematic issue.

“It’s not just happening at our high school,” she said.

Tracy said the incident is reflective of deeper issues in Fairfield’s community, best dealt with through “frank and open” conversation, but that similar concerns go beyond town lines.

“This is way beyond this particular community,” the interim superintendent said. “I think this is a national issue for this country and has been for decades.”

Tracy said he hopes the district will examine its curriculum and how it deals with racial and other forms of intolerance in the United States. In this case, he said, discussion was sparked because an offensive comment happened to be recorded on video and shared, “but it’s much, much wider than that.”

Smoler echoed the issues raised are also concerns in other areas across the country.

Educating the community

Amina Seyal, a Ludlowe alumna, town resident and law student whose brother is a freshman and student of color at the high school, wrote in an email that from what she has gathered, she is pleased with the school’s effort to respond, but called on the Fairfield community to make a concerted effort, including through acknowledging the existence of white privilege.

“It means taking the time to listen to the voices of, and understand the experiences of, students of color, in schools that have mostly white, homogenous student bodies, along with almost all white teachers,” she wrote. “

It means pointing out microaggressions and choosing not to brush aside racist remarks and behavior, whether explicit or implicit. It means striving to do our best, not only in our academic achievement standards and in outperforming other districts, but in the ways that our students feel emotionally safe in our schools and in our community.”

Seyal added that deeming racism insignificant and “no big deal,” or ignoring and allowing it to slide by, enables it.

“We are allowing it to continue,” she wrote. “We can’t do that anymore.”

Horrigan believes a class or another mandatory option would be the best way to educate students.

“There’s a line and I think everyone should be obligated to get educated about this stuff and participate because it’s a luxury that we don’t have to,” Horrigan said. “And for me, if I don’t, I’m contributing to my own oppression, or dismissing my own identity and the struggles that I know I face because I’m a woman and because I’m half black.”

“So to not talk about it would be to ignore that and I can’t because that actually affects me and hurts me,” she added. “I have to stand up for myself, whereas other people who haven’t experienced that don’t need to go there.”

Tracy said he has been talking to both high school headmasters about how to continue and broaden the conversation, including possibly involving civic and religious leaders in town.

The PTA plans to address racial intolerance and hate speech with educational programming to further community discussion.

Lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16