Speakers at the Board of Education meeting Thursday had differing opinions about how school officials handled widely publicized allegations of antisemitic bullying in Westport schools, from left, Jonathan Alloy, David Krasne and Michelle Mechanic. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The Board of Education is standing by the administration’s handling of recent allegations of antisemitic bullying at Coleytown Middle School.

In a statement crafted during a two-and-a-half-hour executive session Thursday, school board members said they are confident that district officials handled the matter in a manner that fulfilled its legal obligations, complied with board polices and “met the high expectations of professionalism we all share.”

The allegations made national headlines when a Westport parent — in an essay published by newsweek.com — said that his son was repeatedly targeted by antisemitic bullying while a student at Coleytown Middle School, and that school officials failed to adequately address the issue and later tried “to buy his silence.”

Six of the board’s seven members voted to approve the statement at the start of the public business meeting that followed the closed-door session. Board member Robert Harrington abstained.

“We are deeply sorry for the pain this child and their family have experienced,” board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said, reading from the statement. “Each of us has had an opportunity to ask questions, specifically about this matter and generally about our bullying and harassment policies.”

Goldstein said, based on its review, the board determined that school administrators acted promptly, ensured safety and support for the students, investigated thoroughly, imposed discipline, and provided learning opportunities to help students understand the impact of their words and actions.

“It is also clear that the matter was handled with care and sensitivity to all the children and families involved,” Goldstein said.

Stacey Delmhorst, a Westport teacher, defended officials’ handling of antisemitic incidents in Westport schools.

In the Dec. 14 opinion piece — titled, “My Son Faced Antisemitism. His School Tried to Buy Our Silence” — parent Andrew Goldberg wrote: “I didn’t know what hurt more: The antisemitism directed at our seventh-grade son or our public school administration’s attempts to silence us about what happened to him.”

Goldberg said the plan devised by the district to address the bullying was inadequate, that antisemitic incidents continued and that eventually his son was moved to a private school.

School officials would later offer to pay part of the boy’s private school tuition, but on the condition the situation not be made public, according to Goldberg.

That, Goldberg said, amounted to a deal designed to buy the family’s silence. The family rejected the offer.

Federal privacy laws generally prohibit Board of Education members from accessing student records, but Goldstein said state law allows an exception to ensure compliance with laws related to bullying, nondiscrimination and discipline.

Harrington: “I wish I had voted against the statement”

Asked why he abstained from voting on the board’s statement, Harrington in later comments to the Westport Journal, said while he could not talk about the executive session, he agrees the administration followed the law and their processes.

But, he said, “as a district I think we could and should have done better. There are lessons to be learned from this important situation. The outcome is deeply concerning because the parents of a bullied child felt that only course of action to protect their child was to remove them from Westport public school district.”

And, he added, “When I heard the long statement read out loud by the board chairwoman I just didn’t agree with the statement.

“My only regret of the evening was abstaining,” he said. “I wish I had voted against the statement.” 

Harrington said he is “deeply sorry for what the child and his family have gone through. We need to mend fences with the family in a proper way. We still can. I hope we can work with the family and the Jewish community to give them the confidence that one day they will feel comfortable returning their child to our district.”

Public divided on officials’ response

Before voting on the statement, the board heard from several members of the public.

Jonathan Alloy, a school district parent, said, “The idea that our school district and our administrators are giving a free pass for antisemitic bullying frankly just does not ring true.”

He said school officials don’t deserve some of the nasty attacks made against them following the incident.

But David Krasne, another parent, said the community has failed to protect at least one student and one family.

“This is unconscionable and inexcusable,” Krasne said. “The student, after being betrayed by his friends, sought help from adults he thought he could trust and was betrayed yet again.”

Krasne said he wasn’t asking the district to break privacy laws, but for accountability, and to formulate an effective plan to address community concerns about antisemitism beyond moving a bully to a different cohort and telling the Jewish student to sit in a different corner of the lunch room.

Although Krasne said he still has faith in Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, he added that Scarice’s statements that antisemitism is not tolerated do not ring true.

“The action that we see, that the community sees, is that the Jewish student is essentially out of the school system now,” Krasne said.

The school board, he added, has an obligation to regain the community’s trust.

Michelle Mechanic, the Democratic Town Committee chairwoman, but speaking as a parent of local schoolchildren, said she moved her Jewish family to Westport because she knew it was a safe community.

“When my son experienced an anti-Jewish act by a peer, the school did not tolerate it. It acted promptly, with compassion for my son, for our family and we were able to resolve the dispute directly with the other family,” Mechanic said.

The school, she added, was eager to work toward a resolution to keep her son safe.

“Jewish people are having a really difficult time right now … We are all in pain,” she said. Often, during a loss, families fight … I urge our Westport families not to fight, but to talk it out.”

Stacey Delmhorst, a Westport teacher and co-president of the Westport Teachers Union, also spoke as an individual, in support of both Scarice and Goldstein.

“You will not find two people who care more about their town, your school, your teachers or your children,” Delmhorst said.

“Every decision I have known these two to make is thoughtful and deliberate. At the end of every conversation we come back to one question: What is in the best interest of the kids.”

Goldstein said the board is concerned about the recent rise in reported antisemitism, and the district is focused both on preventing its spread and educating students about hate. 

“We further understand the frustration that many members of our community feel right now and that many questions remain, not just related to this specific matter, but the broader set of issues related to how we as a district address challenges of this nature,” she said, reading from the statement.

Goldstein said school officials will proactively engage with the community, increase awareness of district policies and practices, solicit feedback, look for opportunities for improvement, and do all they can to prevent and address all incidents of bullying and identity-based offenses.

A community conversation on antisemitism will be held in January. The date has not yet been announced.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.