In wake of anti-Semitic incident, Fairfield Prep atones
WESTPORT — Administrators at a Fairfield private school are striving for cultural change at their institution after an anti-Semitic incident made headlines.
Local rabbis and a representative from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) say they are satisfied with Fairfield College Preparatory School’s response to reports the school’s fans used anti-Semitic chants directed at Jewish Staples High School students during a May 30 lacrosse game.
“I feel very positive about the way the school has addressed the issue. I’m sure they would say they’ve only just begun to address it, but we’re committed to working with them,” said Rabbi Michael Friedman, of Temple Israel, of Westport.
Friedman was one of three local religious leaders — along with Rabbi James Prosnit, of Congregation B’Nai Israel, in Bridgeport, and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, of the Conservative Synagogue, in Westport — that met on campus Tuesday with Fairfield Prep administrators and representatives of the ADL to discuss paths forward and educational strategies to address the incident.
At the May 30 playoff match between Prep and Staples, Fairfield Prep fans from the “Bomb Squad,” the school’s student cheering section, allegedly chanted “Happy Hanukkah” and “We Have Christmas” and sang “The Dreidel Song,” when Staples players with Jewish-sounding names had the ball or scored. On May 31, Fairfield Prep Principal Robert Perrotta sent an email to parents condemning the behavior as “boorish,” but neglecting to use the term “anti-Semitic.” Staples High School head lacrosse coach Paul McNulty took issue to the letter, which he felt downplayed the severity of the chants, and sent an email addressed to Perrotta suggesting more should be done.
At Prep’s June 3 graduation ceremony, school President Rev. Thomas M. Simisky strongly condemned the students’ behavior.
“I will not attempt to infer the motives of those involved. Whether those actions were intended to be hateful, ignorant or otherwise, the results are the same: Hurtful, divisive and insidiously harmful to all that is good in the world,” Simisky said to the crowd of graduates.
Simisky pledged to adjust the school’s curriculum to better educate students on anti-Semitism and tolerance and at the Tuesday meeting, according to Rabbi Wiederhorn, Perrotta vowed that the “theme” of the next school year would be anti-Semitism and religious diversity.
In letters to parents and the Prep community, Simisky and Perrotta have also promised to discipline those involved accordingly, though they have not offered details and have declined multiple emails and phone requests for comment. Prep’s final day of exams was June 8.
According to ADL statistics, there were 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents nationwide, an increase of 60 percent from 2016 to 2017. The number of incidents reported in Connecticut jumped from 18 in 2015 to 49 in 2017.
“We’ve seen a rise in incidents across the board over the last couple years. I think there’s been a coarsening of our national political dialogue and I think it’s filtered down to kids in schools,” said Andy Friedland, assistant director at the ADL’s Connecticut Regional Office.
Instances of poor sportsmanship, racially-charged cheering, and vulgar Facebook posts are not uncommon at area high schools.
In 2011, Fairfield Prep’s “Bomb Squad” was suspended due to unruly behavior at hockey games. In 2014, Fairfield Prep fans allegedly threw water on the court during a playoff basketball game against Bridgeport Central and dumped food provided to them by Mohegan Sun on the floor after a close loss.
Four area schools made similar headlines in 2016. During a Wilton football game against Danbury High School, Wilton fans chanted “build the wall,” directed at Danbury’s diverse student body. In the same year, a Snapchat video depicted a Fairfield Ludlowe student at a soccer game against crosstown rivals Warde using a racial slur directed at black students. Greenwich High School’s football team made headlines after shouting “Hitler” as they ran onto the field, referencing an inappropriately named play they were about to run. Staples administrators were forced to act when they learned of a 200-member private Facebook group on which offensive memes about gender, race and religion were circulated.
“Incidents happen in just about every school in the state. It’s not a question of if something like this is going to happen, it’s a question of how do you respond when it does?” Friedland said.
Westport Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said publicly at a Board of Education meeting on Monday that she felt certain players on the team were being harassed by the Prep fans. She suggested that the athletic director should have stopped the game.
“I also know that before the game there was some banter on Facebook between the two schools that probably didn’t position either school to come at the game in a positive spirit. So that’s something we’re going to look at also,” Palmer said at the board meeting.
In a Thursday letter addressed to parents, Palmer again addressed the social media exchanges, stating the school was following up on “significant derogatory banter on social media between groups/individuals of both schools prior to the game.”
An alleged screenshot of a Facebook post in a private group, “Staples Superfans,” was widely circulated among the Fairfield Prep community. The post used vulgar language encouraging Staples students to attend the game, mocked Fairfield Prep and used sexist language in talking about female Staples students who were allegedly dating Fairfield Prep students. The post got 57 likes.
Palmer wrote in her letter that the school was following up on the posts and that “disciplinary consequences” would be handed out to those involved, though she added an underlined caveat, “none of this excuses anything that occurred at the game.”
Friedland called Tuesday’s meeting between the ADL, local rabbis and Fairfield Prep administrators a “good first step.” Fairfield Prep is a division of Fairfield University and located on the University’s campus.
“It was a really productive meeting. There were a lot of good ideas for programs and ways to move forward and we were really encouraged at how seriously the leadership at Fairfield Prep has taken this and the steps they are going to take,” Friedland said, on behalf of the ADL representative who attended the meeting.
“My colleagues and I felt that this dialogue was a positive first step in helping Fairfield Prep do the reflective work needed to effect change in the culture that exists, especially during sporting events,” said Rabbi Wiederhorn.
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