By SHERIDAN CYR
When headlines across local media reached scores of communities across the state and beyond, describing a racist, violent video posted on social media by a Southington High School student, school administration and the Southington Town Council responded with a joint statement that was read aloud at both the Town Council and Board of Education meetings in January.
“This incident garnered a great deal of negative media attention and cast a shadow on our wonderful caring community,” the statement said. “We are especially concerned for our children and families who were the targets of hate in this incident.”
It goes on to state the response from students, parents, members of the Southington Police Department and school officials “should be applauded and is the true representation of the values of this community,” and states the Council and BOE denounce the ideology represented in the video.
At the Jan. 10 BOE meeting, the first meeting since the joint statement was released in December, members of the community came out in numbers to speak during public communication about personal experiences with racism in Southington Public Schools. Many speakers were students, others parents, and concerned members of the community.
A mother of a middle-school daughter, who she described as “mixed” and Jewish, shared stories of her daughter being called the n-word, being told to “die in the gas chambers,” and being approached by students saying, “heil Hitler.”
She also said her daughter was suspended after a Caucasian student verbally attacked her. The Caucasian student received a detention, while her daughter received a suspension for “standing up for herself.”
“These incidents make my daughter not want to go to Southington schools,” said the mother. “My family pays $180,000 a year in taxes, but my daughter can’t go to a public school?”
Several students shared disturbing stories of their own. One student, age 15, said she just wants to feel safe. “There is a bias against me and other kids who look like me. I know I’m not accepted at SHS, and I can’t even say I’m looking for acceptance at this point,” she said. “I just want to feel safe.”
Parents who are lifelong Southington residents and graduates of SPS said this is not a new problem. Older students said they are concerned for their younger siblings. Many who spoke did so through tears.
Board members replied with gratitude for those willing to share their stories and encouraged students to continue the conversations, both in and outside of school.
“Despite you not feeling heard, I assure you, you were heard this evening,” said BOE chair Brian Goralski (R). “I encourage you to speak up at school to staff, administration, guidance counselors and administration on this board. This is not something we can do alone. It has to be done as a community.”
Goralski echoed a speaker’s remarks that the issue of racism starts at home.
“We can do better,” said board member Bob Brown (D). “I have to apologize. I apologize that those things have happened to you. We should all be kind and loving to each other, and it doesn’t matter a person’s ethnicity, gender, preference, color or anything else.”
At the Jan. 14 Town Council meeting, chair Chris Palmieri (D) said it is “an issue with no political lines. We all stood together.”
“I reached out to the superintendent since Thursday’s BOE meeting, and the Superintendent has suggested forming a community coalition,” he said. “What he’s suggesting is periodically—monthly or bimonthly—getting together with students, parents, community members, staff, and members of public agencies to have these community conversations.”
He added that the community should be inclusive of all residents and be behind the equality of everyone.
“We will not tolerate racism,” said Palmieri. “I know we are on the right track, but we certainly would welcome conversations with others. And we’ll pursue that.”
Councilor Mike Riccio said the conversation is necessary in the often privileged town of Southington.
“Race is not really just about the color of skin. It’s about the culture,” he said. “I think, in Southington, we like to think we’re a melting pot. But maybe we don’t understand the aspects of that.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com.