Shelton rally calls for stronger punishment for students wearing blackface

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — A Shelton Intermediate School student’s blackface photo on Snapchat is evidence of a pervasive attitude in a city desperate for more racial diversity and inclusion, people told the Board of Education Wednesday.

The NAACP’s rally, which featured dozens of organization leaders, students and adults from throughout the state, began outside the school, with Ansonia branch President Greg Johnson joined by other speakers in calling the photo of a local white student in blackface, with a racial slur in the tagline, that was posted on Snapchat a hate crime and the school district’s response unacceptable.

“The buck stops here,” said Johnson. “We want Shelton to take accountability for what has taken place in these walls, in this town, show American they are going to hold folks accountable,” said Johnson, adding that state law calls this a “hate crime.”

The girls responsible for the photo have apologized — and their written apologies were displayed during a special assembly earlier this month at SIS. Superintendent of Schools Chris Clouet said the assembly gathered the entire school population and featured a PowerPoint presentation, during which a detailed history and meaning of blackface in the African-American community was shown.

“This incident in the city of Shelton is not a mistake, but a message,” said Akia Callum, Connecticut State Conference NAACP Youth & College president, who joined state Sen. George Logan, Connecticut State Conference NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile, and criminal defense attorney Michael Jefferson in speaking outside the school. “My skin is not your costume.”

Speakers asked that the school district better educate local students about racism and its impact on minority children attending the school system so incidents such the posting of the blackface photo will not happen again.

“The incident is upsetting to us as couple of color who reside in this community,” said Shelton resident Kristine Brown, who was joined at the microphone by her husband. “We have a student in the community, and we have our own experiences with racism in the community.”

Brown agreed with fellow speakers calling the district’s response “not enough.” She said the community lacks diversity and action is needed in that regard, with a focus on the Board of Education and the district’s faculty.

“We have to do something,” said Smith, adding that this needs to be “addressed not just for young boys and girls of color but for our white brothers and sisters that need to understand that their privilege is causing problems. We all need to be educated ... and the first step is to make this incident a teachable moment, to not have hate in hearts but truly learn to communicate with people that are different from us.”

Other local residents, some students, spoke of unequal treatment by school staff, with some white students who have been racially insensitive not facing punishment in many instances.

One student talked of incidents during the last school year when three different girls put on face masks and displayed it as blackface. She said the school district told her that those involved apologized, but to her knowledge it never happened.

“My expectation was to come here and see middle-aged white folks,” said Johnson. “Unacceptable is what these folks are saying, but we can tell by how nonchalant you sit there that you want this to be over. We are here to tell you this is not over. Either you are going to be the beacon of light or we are going to bring the light down here in Shelton because of the injustice that is going on here in Shelton.”

Johnson also presented the Board of Education with a list of demands in the aftermath of the blackface photo incident, including that the student who exposed the photo be shielded from retaliation and that the NAACP be updated on the investigation and its outcome. Johnson said the NAACP is also seeking copies of the students’ apology and the PowerPoint presentation shown during the assembly.

The demands also called for the school district to partner with the NAACP in mandatory diversity training for students and faculty. Johnson also asked that his organization be updated on the city’s efforts to recruit more minority teachers.

“Racism is an affront to human dignity, a cause of hatred and division, a disease that devastates society,” said Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden. “The recent reminder of racial bias in our city serves as a wake up call to remind us we all need to work to eliminate this scourge on humanity.”

Johnson said he views the lack of action by local educators, municipal leaders and police as “complicity in the act of the white Shelton (Intermediate School) student who felt comfortable enough to put on blackface and go on social media with the caption ‘there’s a new (racial slur) in town.’ This type of behavior must be acceptable in Shelton, since everyone that I have spoken with has attempted to minimize this act.”

Johnson, in a statement released last week, called the students’ actions a “hate crime” that required “swift and meaningful punishment.”

“This act demonstrates hate and a complete lack of respect for an entire race of people,” said Johnson on Sept. 17, “and you all are OK with this? Are the black and brown children in your school system not worthy of being protected and defended?

“This hate, if not addressed with a stiff penalty, will only get worse and it will spread and happen more often because none of the people charged with guiding these young people seem to be taking this seriously. This is beyond serious and we are demanding this student be reprimanded immediately,” Johnson said.

Clouet said on Sept. 10, the district was investigating the circumstances surrounding the photo, which showed a white student wearing a black substance on her face, appearing to be some kind of face paint or beauty mask. In the photo she is seen sticking out her tongue and holding up both middle fingers.

“We will be taking this situation very seriously,” Clouet said when news of the photo broke. “These are complex issues, and before we react, we need to talk to ... those who created the photo and all those who were impacted by the photo.”

The assembly, led by Principal Dina Marks, came one day after Johnson called the photo a hate crime and demanded “swift and meaningful” punishment.

“The apology was a first-person by each girl talking about their intentions and how sorry they were about causing others such distress,” said Clouet, adding that the presentation also featured a statement by a fellow African-American student who described how this photo adversely affected her. None of the students were identified during the presentation.

“This is the beginning of an ongoing process in which we will continue to work with students to learn to better respect each other,” added Clouet.