Social media, NAACP blame community for alleged racist actions of Shelton students

Photo of Brian Gioiele

Whether a white student spitting on a black person at a museum celebrating African American culture was a case of overt racism or gross insensitivity, officials say they’ll do more to celebrate and encourage diversity in the city’s schools.

The Friday incident — which resulted in a group of about 100 students being kicked out of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. — is the second recent example of a Shelton Intermediate School student drawing attention to the city for behavior seen at best as stupid.

Principal Dina Marks said that the student’s action over the weekend, while inappropriate, was not racially motivated.

But Valley NAACP President Greg Johnson, who led a protest rally only three weeks ago in response to an intermediate school student appearing in blackface in a Snapchat photo, says Shelton has a “major problem” and needs to institute a zero tolerance policy with regard to racism.

“You have not been proactive with these situations, but you react to the children of color who stand up to defend themselves immediately,” Johnson said in his statement to the Shelton community, which is 91.8 percent white, per census data. “This stops today, through cooperation or litigation. There will be accountability for the racist, vile environment that you all have allowed.”

Social media erupted after news of the student’s actions broke Oct. 11 when school Superintendent Chris Clouet posted on Facebook about the incident.

While there was consensus that the student acted wrongly by spitting over a balcony at a museum, many said it didn’t appear to be an intentionally racist act.

Others said it was further proof that racial insensitivity is rampant in the community where, some pointed out, a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard lived in the 1980s.

Several said that regardless of the student’s motivation, parents should be doing more to teach their kids to respect others.

Johnson said he was disgusted.

“Not at the Lincoln or Washington monuments, but where African-Americans are celebrated,” said Johnson. “A total and complete lack of respect, and one of the most degrading acts one can commit against another.”

Shelton Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden said for now, the situation is an administrative matter. School was out Monday for the Columbus Day holiday.

“I don’t have personal knowledge of what the student was thinking, but spitting indoors at a museum is incredibly disrespectful,” Holden said. “The fact it was an African American History Museum, and it landed on a black person, compounds the problem.”

Holden pointed out the latest incident occurred two weeks and two days after the NAACP had a rally outside of the Shelton school board’s September meeting. More than a dozen NAACP members spoke at that meeting to condemn the district after a white Shelton Intermediate Student posted a picture on Snapchat in blackface with a racial slur in the caption.

Clouet said that the school had 12 chaperones — including Marks — for the 100 students on the trip.

Intermediate school-aged students are allowed more freedom to tour independently in indoor locations determined to be “safe zones,” such as the Smithsonian, according to Clouet.

Chaperones are expected to be constantly moving around watching all children, he said. He did not address specifically where the chaperones were at the time or what, if anything, would be done about future events.

Clouet said it was too early to decide whether to cancel future Washington, D.C., trips.

The superintendent did say that in response to the incidents, a student ambassador program is being created to have older students visit younger ones to talk about cultural awareness and social justice.

Preliminary plans also are under way for a community forum and diversity training for students and adults at the intermediate school.

“I do not believe Shelton is a racist community,” said Clouet. “I do think that, given the demographic changes here over the past decades, now is the time to come together and learn to show more respect to people of different backgrounds.”

Clouet said he shares the community’s concern that all Shelton students are being depicted as racists, which he and city officials say is untrue.

“People who know Shelton know the kind of progress that has been made over the past 15, 16 years in our city,” said Mayor Mark Lauretti, who has served as the city’s top official for 28 years. “We’ve made huge progress.”

Lauretti said when he was growing up, there were few minority residents in Shelton. Now the 25,000 people commuting into the city on any given day are of all races, genders and religions.

“We welcome everyone,” said Lauretti.

He said that when people call the city’s residents racist, he asks everyone to “take a deep breath. People have been quick to react here, and it has been unfair, uncharacteristic of the community. People’s lives are affected by these statements.”

Marks tweeted at 7:42 a.m. Saturday 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 on Saturday afternoon.

“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.

“I don’t think people realize how the attitudes they have can be perceived as racist. I think there is racial insensitivity, unintentional, but it still exists,” he said.

Staff writer Ethan Fry contributed to this report.