By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — The school district plans to upgrade its website with more information on how antisemitism and other bias problems are addressed, according to Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice.
Westport schools already do a lot to combat hate speech and prejudice, Scarice said in remarks to TEAM Westport last week. The district’s website should reflect the work that is being done, he added.
Scarice updates the Board of Education and TEAM — as well as the community via emailed messages — on issues related to bias when they arise. But he feels the district website should also be a resource for parents and the community to access information about anti-bias programs carried out in the schools, he said.
“We’re working on a much more robust presence on our website about all the work that we do,” Scarice said. “That’s a weakness right now on the communication side.”
The website upgrade will take time, the superintendent said. “We’re doing our best — we just don’t have a communication team. We’re pulling teachers and administrators on their own time to work on that … we realize that we have a lot of work embedded in our curriculum that we want to highlight.”
The school district is helping to organize a Feb. 13 forum on antisemitism at Temple Israel. The program will include educators, clergy and community leaders discussing “the framework and best practices for preventing and responding to identity-based bullying” in schools, according to details on the synagogue’s website. There also will be a question-and-answer period.
Rabbis Michael Friedman of Temple Israel and Jeremy Wiederhorn of TCS are helping coordinate the program, which Scarice said will address antisemitism and other forms of bias. The discussion will focus on “what we do to prevent and what we do to respond when these things happen in our schools … and pro-active actions that we can take,” he said.
The forum will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Temple Israel, 14 Coleytown Road. It also will be live-streamed. Click here to register.
The initiative comes in the wake of several incidents that heightened concerns about antisemitic behavior in local schools last year and how administrators addressed the issue.
A national spotlight was shone on Westport schools when filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, the father of a Coleytown Middle School student, charged school administrators failed to adequately address repeated acts of antisemitic bullying that his son endured. Ultimately, Goldberg said, the family decided to remove the boy from Westport schools.
Goldberg, whose allegations were published by newsweek.com, also said school officials tried to “buy his silence” in a settlement deal that he rejected.
The Board of Education, however, after discussing the case in a closed-door December session, issued a public statement endorsing school administrators’ handling of the issue, saying administrators fulfilled schools’ legal obligations, complied with board polices and “met the high expectations of professionalism we all share.”
Another incident involving a violent video circulated among students after the October attacks on Israel by Hamas prompted Scarice to issue a statement condemning its content. The video, which followed a spate of other videos created by students outside of school, was so concerning that police were called in to investigate, the superintendent said at the time.
Harold Bailey Jr., the TEAM Westport chairman, emphasized that the advocacy committee has a longtime commitment to fighting antisemitism.
“There are people that are surprised that TEAM Westport is focused on antisemitism now,” he said. “Fighting antisemitism is not something new for TEAM Westport. It’s something we’ve done all along.”
The first award TEAM won for its anti-bias work came in 2005 from the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to opposing antisemitism nationally, Bailey said.
“We have to make sure that we understand, and that we have full conviction, that when one of us is hurt, we’re all are hurt,” Bailey said.
“If the Jewish community is suffering and feels isolated, we all ought to feel that way. It’s the same thing for the Islamic community, for the Black community … We are all connected, that’s what TEAM Westport is here to emphasize.”
Bailey noted that TEAM’s new logo — a tapestry woven from multiple threads of different colors — symbolizes the committee’s core mission, which is to weave together different cultures in the Westport community. The strands of the tapestry — representing diverse religious, racial, LGBTQ and ethnic communities — “all intersect,” Bailey said. “We should feel an opportunity to be energized by those intersections, as opposed to be threatened by them.”
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.