The new TEAM Westport logo, a tapestry-like design that aims to reflect the “intersectionality” of race, gender, ethnicity and religious issues for which the committee advocates.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Concerns about hate — in word and deed —were voiced once again at TEAM Westport’s meeting Thursday.

The issue arose when committee member Catherine Lewis said parents are complaining that some elementary schools in Westport do not properly handle in-house hate incidents.

“There are challenging environments at some schools,” she said. “There are micro-aggressions happening daily.”

Lewis, the head of TEAM’s parent and community groups, said she got an earful about hate-related incidents in the town’s elementary schools when she recently met with a group of about 20 parents.

“It’s really having an impact. Parents say, ‘It’s not safe for my child going to the schools.’ People are leaving Westport because they say it’s not safe … to go to these schools,” she said, referring in particular to children with minority backgrounds.

Faith Sweeney, a K-5 literacy coach at Coleytown Elementary School and a teaching fellow for the National Education Association union for educators, told the meeting the school district has an Equity Study Action Plan that has gathered data on micro-aggressions and hate incidents in local schools. That plan is still being reviewed, with some disagreements, by the Board of Education. 

But the Equity Action Team has not yet disseminated district-wide policies to make all children feel welcome, and address racism and other diversity issues in every school, she said.

“It does seem that it is delayed,” Sweeney said about the equity plan. “Teachers need to feel more comfortable about addressing identity-based incidents … We need to make it consistent throughout the district.”

Lewis said that when hate incidents occur, while the child responsible is punished, not enough is done to change the atmosphere in the school.

“How many stories do we have to hear” without teachers and administrators taking action, she asked.

TEAM Westport needs to address concerns about hate incidents in the town’s schools at future meetings, said Harold Bailey Jr., the TEAM Westport chairman.

Reports of hate crimes surging

Also present at the TEAM meeting was Jill Nadel, a board member of the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League.

“There has been an exponential increase in hate incidents in Connecticut,” she said, citing reports on the ADL’s website.

“Antisemitic incidents surged to historic levels in 2022, with a 100 percent increase in Connecticut — a record setting year,” according to the website.

The statistics show the increase in racism and anti-Semitism has been driven by white-supremacy groups, Nadel said.

ADL tracking data shows:

  • White supremacist propaganda incidents increased 115 percent last year in Connecticut .
  • Antisemitic incidents increased 36 percent nationwide last year, but 100 percent in Connecticut.
  • Although Connecticut ranks 29th state in population, the state last year was ninth in the nation for white supremacist propaganda incidents and eleventh in the country for antisemitic incidents.  

The group also discussed a police initiative to put up billboards at the Saugatuck Railroad Station and other places around town, with the message that Westport is a town that welcomes diversity. The billboards also would have information about how to report hate incidents to the Police Department.

Hate incidents of any kind should be reported first to the police dispatch center, which is the quickest, most efficient way, and also gets incidents on the record sooner, Lt. Eric Woods, the public information officer for Westport police, told the meeting.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.