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Facing criticism, Stonington school board reinstates Columbus Day

Stonington — The school board voted 3-2 Thursday night to change Indigenous Peoples Day back to Columbus Day on the school calendar after some board members said a public hearing should be held before making any change.

At the board's June 10 meeting, Superintendent of Schools Van Riley explained the changes to the 2021-22 calendar, including that Columbus Day was being changed to Indigenous Peoples Day per the request of the school system's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Since then, the board had heard criticism from those who opposed the change and claimed the school system teaches critical race theory. 

At Thursday's meeting, board member Heidi Simmons, who was the acting chairman at the June 10 meeting, said the board should not consider the change without a public hearing.

Board member Gordon Lord agreed. "We need more community input before we make that call," he said.

Board Chairman Frank Todisco joined Simmons and Lord in voting to return the holiday to Columbus Day, while board members Farouk Rajab and Jack Morehouse voted to keep Indigenous Peoples Day on the calendar.

Todisco said he was not necessarily opposed to changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day but the board needs to seek input from the community before making the decision.

During the board's public comment period Thursday, Connie Szymonik of Mystic, who identified herself as a retired Ledyard teacher, renewed her call to return Columbus Day to the calendar.

"I do not believe in deconstructing history. I believe in history. I don't believe that we should be wiping the name Columbus off the calendar," she said. "We can't impose our present time on previous times. Students should not be made to feel guilty for what happened in 1492."

She went on to say she supports the teaching of "true, factual history" and in her mind "canceling" Columbus Day shows that Stonington does teach critical race theory. She said the school system does this by teaching the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Last week, the school system issued a formal statement saying it does not teach critical race theory, or CRT, in its classrooms.      

It stated that "Our teachers and administrators must be supported and encouraged to teach the truth about history in order to develop critical thinking and perspective in our students so that they, the students we serve, can draw their own conclusions about the past, current events, and the impacts of social injustice."

Several teachers on Thursday night also took the podium to say they don't teach CRT but do teach historical fact. CRT is a four-decade-old, college-level concept that racism is ingrained in the country's legal, education and economic systems and policies and not just expressed by individuals.

Another resident, who said he also was opposed to the teaching of CRT, told the board Columbus was a hero. "He was a businessman and an explorer, he wasn't a scoundrel," he said, adding that native people who returned with him to Europe went willingly.

"He murdered people," resident Joe Trelli responded from the audience.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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