Dr. Carol Felder, joined by her husband Richard Anderson, told the Board of Education on Thursday that their child regularly is subjected to racist bullying at Staples High School. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — While most Staples High School students are tested by physically navigating the large building, a Black couple told the Board of Education on Thursday their freshman daughter worries about moving through the crowded hallways without hearing “monkey” or the n-word yelled in her direction.

“Can you imagine?” Dr. Carol Felder told the school board during the public comment portion of the meeting. Her husband, Richard Anderson, stood by her side.

Felder, shaking with emotion at times, described an ongoing litany of racist incidents both their children, ages 14 and 12, have experienced in Westport.

She read from a screen shot of a text that she said captured a now-former friend of her daughter, dismissing a racist comment made by someone else with a “laughing my ass off” response.

“If you asked me today what the most difficult thing I’ve had to do, it’s raising Black children in Westport, Connecticut,” Felder told the board.

Felder said the incidents are not isolated, but chronic. 

“If you asked me today what the most difficult thing I’ve had to do, it’s raising Black children in Westport, Connecticut.”

Dr. Carol Felder

She said that the family has gone through the process of reporting the incidents to school staff and meeting with school counselors as investigations were conducted.

Board of Education policies and procedures in place to combat harassment, racism and bullying, the couple said, simply don’t work.

Neither, they added, are the penalties imposed on the perpetrators, such as school suspensions. They want consequences that are transparent and that go on the records of those responsible for the offenses.

Felder and Anderson said officials need to call in specialists, educate themselves and acknowledge that the racism problem is chronic.

“I am not here to point fingers. I am here to ask for assistance,” Felder said.

Racism is “a Westport problem”

“This is not just a Board of Education problem. It’s a Westport problem,” she added.

She said parents need to speak up against racism.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice offered no immediate public comment at the meeting about the charges, but spent several minutes in the hallway talking with the couple during a break in the meeting.

After the meeting, Scarice issued a statement calling Felder and Anderson brave for sharing their painful experience of racism targeted at their children.

Scarice: Racism, other forms of hate not tolerated

“Let me be clear: We do not tolerate racism and other forms of hate in our schools,” Scarice wrote. “When we learn that a student has been targeted based on their identity, we first take steps to ensure that the student is safe and supported. Following an investigation, we take swift, decisive action and those responsible are held accountable.”

Scarice said he can’t imagine what it would be like to suffer through the children’s experience.

“I do, however, know this: no student, no person, should ever have to face discrimination or harassment based on their race. We will listen, we will learn, and while there is no cure for the virus of hate, we will continue to ensure that our schools do all we can to fight against it,” the superintendent added.

He encouraged anyone in the school community who experiences or witnesses acts of hate or discrimination to report them.

Racism allegations follow charges of antisemitic bullying

The charges of racism comes on the heels of a complaint by a family that district efforts to combat antisemitic bullying directed at their son at Coleytown Middle School were so ineffective, they pulled him out of the district and into a private school.

Those allegations, which school board members said were properly addressed, made national headlines when the father, filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, posted a column about his experience on newsweek.com.

That incident prompted district officials to call for a public conversation about antisemitism in the schools and steps to combat it. The forum, “Addressing Incidents of Antisemitism and Bias in Our Schools,” is now scheduled March 13 at Temple Israel.

Tara Welch told the school board that her biracial children also have experienced issues in Westport schools. “It’s heartbreaking coming to town, expecting to be safe and they’re not,” she said.

Both situations have some parents questioning the effectiveness of an District Equity Action Plan, which seeks to make Westport schools more equitable and inclusive for all students.

Tara Welch, who spoke in support of the Andersons, said her two biracial children have encountered nothing but issues since attending local schools.

“It’s heartbreaking coming to town, expecting to be safe and they’re not,” said Welch.

Donisha Diagne, who has three children in the school district, told the board she is terrified of what it might be like for her children when they enter Staples High School.

She said she has heard of incidents similar to what the Anderson family described and is heartbroken. “We can’t do this by ourselves,” she told the board.

“Shame on you for letting this happen over and over and over again,” added Tracy Miller, another speaker “It needs to stop.”

Board members react

Several board members said how sorry they were to learn about the racist bullying.

“I apologize for the experience the Anderson family has gone through,” said board member Robert Harrington. “We know you are not alone. We must and can do better. There will be uncomfortable conversations. We need to take it on.”

Board member Jill Dillon said it was painful to hear about the incidents.

“As a community we need to understand where that comes from,” Dillon said.

How effective is “climate” survey of district schools?

Ironically, later in the meeting, the school board took up consideration of a climate survey for students, families and staff that touches on negative or positive energy in schools, how often people are disrespectful to others and can bullied students effectively get help from an adult staffer.

Some board members wondered if the answers culled from the annual climate questionnaire result in effective change.

“We have a lot of data,” said board Chair Lee Goldstein. “Maybe some of what we are doing, we need to look at whether it’s working or it’s not working” to address the problem of racism.

The board also amended policies on non-discrimination of students and personnel.

Scarice said the policies and the response have to address both education and restoration.

The district is also working on a new code of conduct that Scarice plans to run by the board before it is put in place.

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.