‘Residents of color in our town are living a different experience’: Fairfield task force updates on racism

Fairfield Ludlowe High School students listen to some of their classmate speak during an organized walk out in Fairfield, Conn. May 24, 2021. Students at Ludlowe and across town at Fairfield Warde High School held walk outs Monday morning to protest recent racist incidents.

Fairfield Ludlowe High School students listen to some of their classmate speak during an organized walk out in Fairfield, Conn. May 24, 2021. Students at Ludlowe and across town at Fairfield Warde High School held walk outs Monday morning to protest recent racist incidents.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Racism within the Fairfield school district and the community in general has continued to be a major issue in the town, according to Fairfield’s Racial Equity and Justice Task Force.

Task force member Karen Lynch gave examples of racial inequality in town, as well as racial incidents within the schools during the task force’s recent update to the Board of Selectmen.

“Residents of color in our town are living a different experience than the majority of our town residents,” Lynch said. “We heard that people of color don’t get the same service is restaurants for instance, black homeowners have often been mistaken for not living in Fairfield and they must live in Bridgeport. They must be the nanny of the children if they’re in an interracial family, for instance.”

“We’ve heard stories and seen very recently lots of accounts of graffiti in schools, racial slurs being used between students, kind of victimizing students of color,” she added. “When I say schools, not just the incidents recently at Warde and Ludlowe, but Tomlinson, Burr and Sherman. Let’s not forget kind of the politically heated graffiti that happen at McKinley.”

In January, graffiti was found on the sidewalk outside of McKinley Elementary School. A local woman was later arrested in connection with the spraypainting, which included the words “United States of China” and “Biden for Socialism,” according to police.

More recently in May, a Warde student was arrested and charged after a photo with racial slurs was posted of a classmate on Snapchat. Shortly after, students from Ludlowe allegedly racially and verbally attacked the victim’s brother, an incident that didn’t lead to any arrests, Fairfield police said.

Lynch said the racist incidents have been “seeping down” to the elementary schools. Racist graffiti was recently reported in the bathroom at Tomlinson Middle School and on the grounds of Burr Elementary School. Also, students at Sherman Elementary School were involved in a racially verbal altercation.

“Parents have challenged the way those situations are treated with the administration,” Lynch said. “Education is a hot topic, if you will, in terms of this space for us.”

Andrea Clark, the school district’s spokesman, said she doesn’t think there has been an uptick of incidents.

“We do not believe these incidents have increased in frequency; they are simply being reported more often,” she said Wednesday. “As a district, we are working to be more transparent and communicate more openly with our families and the community when they do occur.”

She said the district is focused on how best to communicate with and support the school communities when incidents involving racist language or acts happen.

“We want to be absolutely clear that we stand against racist language and acts of racism,” she said. “We need to label such incidents for what they are and use them as teachable moments in developmentally appropriate ways.”

She added, “What is important is our ability to move forward and provide our students with tools to learn from these incidents, while ensuring they feel safe and protected in their school environment.”

Lynch also raised concerns about interactions residents said happened with police.

“Also, in law enforcement we have heard some kind of anecdotal stories that people of color in town feel as though that they are watched, for lack of a better word, a little more carefully,” she added.

Lynch continued the task force presentation by describing two situations involving law enforcement that were believed to be racially biased.

The first incident included a resident who shared a story about being charged with a blight ordinance. The resident believes that the incident was based out of a racial or prejudice motivation.

The second story included a recent police stop where police officers pulled over a black man in town after hearing “clear” dispatch calls that the suspect was a short white male.

“Implicit bias is playing out in these sectors, so we’re learning that first hand,” Lynch said.

The police spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

“We are learning in the last several months even beyond our conviction, that it was an important task force to be involved in. We are certainly learning the importance of it in the last few months, we have had a lot of activity, for lack of a better word,” Lynch said.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick says the task force was initially created in response to the George Floyd murder among other events happening on a national level. The group of volunteers, made up of residents with all different backgrounds, is currently researching and planning a blueprint to address the racial issues in town and will present it to the public shortly.

“My hope for this task force is it might find areas of improvement whether it be in our town’s hiring practices, the education of our children, in policing, and other areas of town governance,” Kupchick said.

As Kupchick looks forward to the recommendations from the task force, she hopes that the community continues to look inward, listen, respect those who have different viewpoints and lead by example.

“Every community faces challenges, and the recent incidents sadden me as a mom, a citizen and the chief elected official for our town. A task force can’t change every bias, but I believe it can look at and make recommendations how we change our town government, or school policies for the better,” she added.