Chris Wanner and Faith Sweeney, co-chairs of the school district’s Equity Committee, discuss the initiative at last week’s Board of Education meeting. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Efforts to make all students in Westport public schools feel they belong continues, but words continue to get in the way.

During an update on the district’s Equity Study Action Plan last week, Board of Education members meeting in the Staples High School cafeteria debated whether “equity” should be struck from the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging initiative.

“It is still a very divisive word,” said board Vice Chair Dorie Hordon.

Others expressed impatience with the pace of the effort.

“I want to really move forward as fast as we can,” board member Robert Harrington said.

“When will students start to feel the impact of the work?” asked board member Kevin Christie.

Where the initiative stands

 Now, in year three of the initiative, the board was told the school district’s work to make students feel safe and included, in many respects, is ahead of schedule.

Steps are to be taken to collect data on student misbehaviors, train staff and engage students in the process.

“I can tell you the work we are doing is right on target with the needs of our students … supporting all students,” Chris Wanner, coordinator of health and physical education for the district and co-chair of the district’s Equity Committee, told the board.

As the work progresses, however, the school officials have had to deal with several high-profile incidents involving reported acts of antisemitism and race-based hate speech.

In response, officials reached out to several groups for help. Its student discipline policy and the student Code of Conduct have been reworked. The new rules roll out in the fall.

The district has also forged ahead with the creation of district and school DEIB committees, is training staff in restorative practices, decided what student behavior data to collect and is working with the Anti-Defamation League on a “No Place for Hate” initiative.

Under the program, students form committees at their schools to devise their own plans for improving the school climate and have them share those ideas to classmates three or four times a year.

As many students who want to can join the committees. As many as possible will be asked to sign a pledge to make their schools hate-free.

The effort will include training on how students can become allies to classmates who are bullied, said Faith Sweeney, a district literacy coach and the other co-chair of the Equity Committee.

The board was warned they also may be asked to sign off on another student survey about bullying and bias they have personally experienced or witnessed.

As for data, the district, until now, has collected only suspension and verified bullying incidents required by the state.

As of this April, at the elementary level, schools are being asked to count physical incidents that jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of individuals in the school community and bias incidents.

In addition to suspension data, detentions would be tallied at the middle schools and, at the high school, office referrals.

The idea, said Wanner, is to ensure consistency and help the district see what is happening and develop a plan to address it.

To speed up the project, several board members asked if more budgetary resources might help.

“What else can we do?” asked Christie. “What else do you need … to accelerate the commitment?”

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice noted there are only so many employees in the district, who are working on several initiatives at once, while they fulfill their daytime jobs.

Words matter

“The work is great. It’s very important,” said board member Jill Dillon. If the word — equity — is getting in the way, it may be time to change it, she added.

Hordon said she is all for efforts to make students feel they belong and to ensure access to district programs. However, she said it is unclear why the district continues to attach the word equity to the work when so many higher education institutions around the country are dismantling DEI programs and firing DEI staff.

“Is there a negative aspect to this?” said Hordon, who at the district level succeeded in having the board replace the word equity with “without bias” in the new student discipline policy.

Sweeney said equity, to her, is finding ways all students can learn and succeed. It doesn’t involve reaching quotas or lessening what is taught.

To Hordon, DEI imbeds ideological concepts that push proportionality and quotas.

Early on, the district’s equity work included a report from the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity, which was all about proportionality, Hordon said.

“We all know [consulting NYU] was a mistake,” Hordon said, adding some may not acknowledge it publicly.

“I don’t think everyone” feels that way, responded board Chair Lee Goldstein. “That is your opinion.”

Wanner said the district’s initiative speaks for itself, striving to have all students have a sense of belonging and safety so that they are able to succeed.

“That’s great,” Hordon said, adding she wondered, however, if there are other things going on behind the scene that conflict with the sense-of-belonging effort.

As an example, Hordon said, there were bulletin boards at Staples High School this year on “toxic masculinity” that, in her view, fostered the oppresser/oppressed narrative.

Scarice said the bulletin boards were part of an elective class and taken down when brought to the administration’s attention.

Board Secretary Neil Phillips said words do matter, and it is important for Westport to be clear about its efforts.

Assistant Supt. Anthony Buono said he doesn’t care what the district calls the work as long as it continues.

Anya Nair, a Staples senior and student representative to the board, agreed, saying the anti-hate effort has the potential to bring about a changed atmosphere that she, a minority, did not always experience growing up.

“I care that more kids get the opportunity to learn” about how other students feel, Nair said. “A resource that can help is important, regardless of words like DEI.”

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.