Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice
Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice: “It is my hope tonight that my words tonight do convey our district commitment to no tolerance for any form of hate. We know that it is the actions that we take, proactively and responsively, that matter most, not our words.” / File photo

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — The parent of a seventh-grade student at Coleytown Middle School, in an essay published Thursday on a national news website, said the boy was subjected to repeated antisemitic harassment, which school officials failed to adequately address and later tried to conceal the problem by offering a deal designed to “buy” the parents’ silence.

Andrew Goldberg, an award-winning documentary maker and film producer, made the allegations in an essay, “My Son Faced Antisemitism. His School Tried to Buy Our Silence,” published Thursday on newsweek.com.

Goldberg’s “My Turn” essay levels serious charges against unnamed school officials, as well as his son’s friends and their families.

But responding to questions from Westport Journal, Goldberg amplified on the essay with more details.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, also responding to a Journal request for reaction, while not directly addressing Goldberg’s allegations, issued a statement Thursday saying the school district “categorically rejects antisemitism and has no tolerance for antisemitism or any other form of hate.” (The full statement appears below.)

Scarice also spoke about the issue at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, saying it saddened him that members of the Jewish community think the school district does not take incidents of antisemitism seriously, particularly given the current climate. 

“It is my hope tonight that my words tonight do convey our district commitment to no tolerance for any form of hate,” Scarice said. “We know that it is the actions that we take, proactively and responsively, that matter most, not our words.”

Incident “seared like a brand”

Goldberg prefaces the opinion piece, writing: “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.

“Both seared like a brand.”

Goldberg, the father of three and executive producer and director at So Much Film in New York City, writes that his family moved to Westport because “it has a reasonably large Jewish population and well-regarded public schools.” Among his film credits are “Viral: Antisemitism In Four Mutations” and “Antisemitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence.”

Goldberg’s view of Westport’s tolerance changed, he said, after his son was bullied while a sixth-grade student at Coleytown Middle School and a year later was targeted by antisemitic harassment from fellow students.

Invited to attend “Camp Auschwitz,” with its “great showers”

An example of this harassment, according to Goldberg, occurred when “One student, whom my son considered a friend, invited my son to sign up for his ‘camp’ which had ‘great showers’ — ‘Camp Auschwitz’.”

The son’s friend continued antisemitic taunts, such as, “We must exterminate the Jews!” despite his son’s protestations to stop, even after the boy informed his harasser the family has relatives who died in the Holocaust, according to Goldberg.

When Goldberg and his wife reported the incidents to school administrators they were told it would be taken “very seriously” and investigated. He told the Journal those officials include Supt. Scarice and Coleytown Middle School Principal Parthena Proskinitopoulos.

Officials devised what they called a “safety plan” for Goldberg’s son, according to the essay.

Goldberg found that plan to be lacking: “I didn’t think that anything I saw in the safety plan — or any of their communications — addressed the antisemitism and bigotry, or how to use this as a teachable moment for students and faculty. Instead, the safety plan seemed to just be different ways my son could move around the building.”

While antisemitic incidents continued as “weeks went by” and took a heavy emotional toll on his son, Goldberg said, he lost confidence in school officials and their safety plan to resolve the problem.

In the statement to the Westport Journal, he said, he did not feel either Scarice or Proskinitopoulos “really understand what antisemitism is or how dangerous it is.”

It led Goldberg to conclude: “Antisemitism is exploding in this country and if schools do not have sufficient skills, training, and policies to handle it, it means only bad things for kids. It’s no secret that most public schools are entirely unprepared when it comes to identifying and handling antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, he said, the incident was reported to the state chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, but not to Westport police or any other town officials.

“The notion of my son going back to his middle school seemed intolerable and risky,” Goldberg wrote, so the boy was instead enrolled in a private, Jewish school.

School investigation: “Far too little, much too late”

Subsequently, when the Goldbergs did receive the results of school officials’ investigation of their complaints, and even though, “It substantiated many of our claims,” they judged it was “far too little, much too late.”

During the course of the Goldbergs’ dispute with school officials, they had hired a lawyer, according to the essay, who secured a proposed settlement that would allot partial payment of their son’s private school tuition. That figure is not disclosed in the essay, but Goldberg said it was “less than needed to get him through middle school.”

The proposed settlement, however, incorporated a confidentiality provision that would have required that Goldberg, his wife or their son never discuss the pact, he wrote. The deal initially also would have required the Goldbergs to pay $15,000 to the school district if they violated the non-disclosure stipulation — a proviso later dropped.

“We responded in no uncertain terms that we viewed this as hush money,” Goldberg wrote. “We’d agree to keep the settlement and money terms confidential, but we couldn’t agree to be silent about our experiences.”

When school officials refused to drop the non-disclosure terms, Goldberg said the family rejected the proposed settlement.

A refusal to remain silent

“Now, more than ever, speaking out about antisemitism is needed. Remaining silent was simply something we could not do,” Goldberg wrote.

“We agreed as a family that being silent about the cruel experience of what happened to us  and to our son was not something we would sell to the Westport  Public  Schools  District.”

In his statement to the Westport Journal, Goldberg addressed his broader concerns: ‘It is dangerous to assume that this town — or any town — is necessarily safe for Jews. 

“Westport has a reputation for tolerance, but that doesn’t make it immune. Antisemitism rises in every demographic and socioeconomic class. We must be vigilant if we are to keep our communities safe.

“More education about antisemitism must take place and involve leadership, teachers, students and parents. Our schools are thus far failing us in this regard.”

Mothers demand accountability for school officials

At Thursday night’s school board meeting, Scarice reiterated comments he made in his earlier statement.

The superintendent said the district does respond to incidents, such as antisemitic behavior, whenever they arise.

“Full disclosure, this is probably one of the more challenging parts of my position and my job that I face on a regular basis,” he said. “The duty and commitment to honor student privacy is truly a challenge.”

He said he plans to meet Friday with two local rabbis who have offered to help in the current situation.

“We are not perfect. I am not perfect,” Scarice said. “We need help to explicitly teach our kids it is never acceptable to say anything antisemitic, racist or hate based … We need help as we try to stop this from happening.”

Leslie Derkash, Goldberg’s wife and mother of the former Coleytown student, attended the meeting. She thanked Scarice for his comments, but added they felt like lip service.

“We don’t know what hurts more,” Derkash said. “The antisemitism our son experienced or the school administration’s response.”

There must be “an accounting of your behavior,” she told Scarice. “You say you cannot control what students say and do. I agree. I was a teacher 15 years … I understand kids will be kids. Middle school is a good time to make mistakes that won’t go on their record.” 

But, she added, school administrators should be expected to know how to address such situations.

Heather Turk, the parent of an elementary school student, said she was pleased to hear the superintendent say he can do better, “Because I personally emailed him and did not get a response, which is incredibly disappointing.”

Turk said she had planned to address the board, even before Goldberg’s essay was published, because of an antisemitic incident she said occurred in a local elementary school.

“We as parents know what happened and have not heard any response at all,” Turk said. “I understand privacy, but there can be a statement to make everyone feel safe … and that was not done.”

Turk said parents need a clearer understanding of the consequences and education that follow when such incidents take place at school.

“Our kids are in a classroom with children who are hitting and using hate words or speech on a daily basis,” Turk added.

Several school board members said they were unaware of the controversy.

“I want to make it clear that the Board of Education members, apart from our chairwoman, were not informed or made aware of this particular situation, even at a basic high level,” said Robert Harrington. “In general and in most cases, Board of Education members are not made aware of such situations. I think it is very important to be very transparent about this. We learn about it at the same time as the community does.”

Member Dorie Hordon agreed. “A lot of people think we know everything that is going on. Often we are in the dark as well,” she said.

Schools “absolutely vigilant” addressing hate-based conduct

The full statement issued Thursday by Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, in response to Goldberg’s column, reads:

“It is deeply saddening to know that our community members, specifically members of our Jewish community, have concerns that we do not take these matters seriously, particularly at this point in time. Although our hope is that the words below convey our commitment to no tolerance for any form of hate, we know that it is the actions that we take, proactively and responsively, that matter most. 

“Across our schools, the district provides student programming and staff training from reputable institutions such as Anti-Defamation League [ADL] and other organizations to help foster a school climate in which students feel a sense of safety and belonging. 

“It is understandable that community members will have serious concerns when they hear stories that paint a very different picture.

“In full disclosure, this is a challenge because we have a duty and commitment to honor student privacy rights.  However, we can assure the community we are absolutely vigilant in addressing discrimination, harassment and other forms of hate-based conduct.

“When reports are made with us about student interactions, in school or outside of school hours, including allegations of bias or hate-based discriminatory conduct, our schools immediately respond with our “Identity-Based Incident” protocol, established to implement the Board of Education “Hate-Based Conduct” policy (#0525).

“The response is centered on the following steps: (1) thoroughly investigate and ensure student safety, (2) address (i.e., consequences for substantiated acts, learning experiences), (3) restore relationships.

“Our response to these concerns always includes prioritizing the safety of students first, which usually means creating a safety plan, while incorporating parent feedback, for the students involved as we investigate.

“We then conduct a thorough investigation and, depending on our findings, address substantiated findings in a variety of ways. This includes disciplinary consequences, longer-term safety measures, interventions to address the school climate, training for staff, and learning opportunities for students. When all parties are ready, we create and facilitate opportunities for the students involved to restore relationships within the school community.

“While our response to concerns of hate-based conduct is critical, a vitally important aspect of our program includes implementing proactive measures for students that foster a school climate in which students feel safe and welcome.

“To that end, we have provided programs to our students to help them understand the impact of their words and actions on others.  Some of these programs include the Second Step SEL curriculum (i.e. empathy and kindness lessons, and perspective taking), ADL “identity-based” anti-bullying lessons, the Responsive Classroom model, the Ruler program, heritage month celebrations, using our 6-12 advisory programs (i.e. “Connections”) to lead discussions on these topics.

“Staff professional development programs addressing this need have included: ADL scenario-based training (i.e. responding to bias/hate-based incidents), training on microaggressions/subtle acts of exclusion, and school-based DEIB committee book clubs. In addition, given our commitment to this work, the district has begun to explore the pathway for a “No Place for Hate” designation by the ADL.

“As always, we invite community members to share any concerns about their experiences in our schools.  We are committed to maintaining a school climate that is safe and welcoming to all, and we recognize that there is always more work to be done.

“We look forward to partnering with the community in confronting these difficult issues.”

With additional reporting by Linda Conner Lambeck.