NAACP head: School race reaction ‘not heartfelt’

Photo of Brian Gioiele

The Shelton school district’s reaction to two separate incidents with intermediate school students behaving insensitively, at best, racist, at worst, has been poor, said the head of the NAACP valley branch.

Both incidents hit major news outlets within the past month. The first came a month ago, when a photo of a female student wearing blackface hit Snapchat. The girls involved apologized, but no other punishment was given.

The second incident came Oct. 11, when a white student spit on a black person at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Principal Dina Marks said the student’s actions - which led to the group of 100 students being kicked out of the museum - were inappropriate and immature but not racially motivated.

“It took national attention to get a response to the degradation, disrespect and belittling of our children of color,” said Greg Johnson, president of the Ansonia branch of the NAACP. “Even in the responses, I don’t feel as if it is heartfelt. I don’t feel as if those responsible for guiding these children feel the same pain and sadness as those of us who know that could have been our child.”

In response, school Superintendent Chris Clouet said a student ambassador program is being created to have older students visit younger ones to talk about cultural awareness and social justice. Plans to hold a community forum and diversity training for students and adults at the intermediate school are ongoing.

The minimal consequences and remedies offered are still not enough, said Johnson.

“We need a commitment from Shelton that these actions will be addressed swiftly and in a manner that says clearly that any disrespectful, racially motivated acts of hate and violence will not be tolerated,” he said.

Johnson said zero tolerance is required, and “that includes ongoing sensitivity training for students, school staff, elected officials and town employees along with intense recruitment of minority administrators and teachers.”

The NAACP became involved last month with the intermediate school student who was in what appeared to be blackface in a photo on Snapchat. Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden said that photo, while insensitive, was done and posted over the summer. Holden said an individual from New Haven took the photo in September, placed a cutline with a racial slur on the photo and reposted.

The girls responsible for a photo on Snapchat of a white student in blackface have apologized — and their written apologies were displayed during a special assembly last month at Shelton Intermediate School.

Clouet said the assembly gathered the entire school population and featured a “well-crafted” PowerPoint presentation, during which a detailed history and meaning of blackface in the African American community was shown. An African American student also talked of how the posted photo made her feel.

Clouet said, while some know the students involved, others do not, so the girls were not identified during the assembly.

The most recent incident at the Smithsonian involved a student spitting over a balcony, not looking at who he would hit, said Marks, who tweeted at 7:42 a.m. on Oct. 12 that the student’s decision “was an act of stupidity, disinterest & immaturity, completely inappropriate, but I believe, not racially motivated against that person.”

Marks’ Twitter feed has since been shut down. Clouet said response to her tweet included “unpleasant comments” and shutting down the feed was a joint decision made for security reasons.

“Whether or not yesterday’s incident at the Smithsonian African American Museum was ‘horse-play’ or involved overt bias is not clear. Far too often unkind acts in our world are excused because it was ‘only a joke,’” Clouet said in a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media.

“The individual who was spit on may not see it as a joke. I suspect it may have been more rude than racist,” Clouet said. “In any case, it was at minimum an unkind, immature act — cutting short the visit of the other SIS students to what is truly a spectacular museum that captures the oppression and pain African Americans have endured as well as the resilience and joy associated with the vibrant African American culture that is foundational to the United States of America.”

Holden said the city and school system need to help students understand the importance of respecting others.