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Students' past racist social media posts come back to haunt East Lyme schools

East Lyme — Racist social media posts from past years have been resurrected by high school students in what has contributed to a culture of online harassment, according to East Lyme High School administrators.

And at least one video circulating on social media shows the harassment is not confined to the internet.

The principal and assistant principals in a Thursday letter asked families to stand in solidarity against racism, as well as against online harassment of students who made "racist social media posts" in the past.

Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton told The Day that resurrecting old posts — which he said were already "addressed and dealt with" — is "a form of harassment because it's going back and forth on social media."

The principals in their letter said the recirculation of the posts and online harassment will not be tolerated and are being addressed.

"We cannot fix the internet, and we cannot eradicate racism," the letter said. "We can, though, ask you to partner with us to create a kinder, more inclusive, and more mature high school community."

Newton said the harassment is confined to the internet. When pressed about whether or not there has been any harassment in the school itself, he reiterated he'd only heard of harassment on social media.

"I can't speak to if a student has said something to another student in the hallway. That I don't know," he said.

One post being circulated among students on the social media platform Snapchat shows a past comment attributed to a current student with statements like "segregation existed for a reason," "black people are insignificant due to the sole fact that they are black" and "I don't care about black people, and that's just the truth."

Newton said he's heard of two posts "of a racist nature" being resurrected, but cautioned there could be more.

In a video circulating among students, a female student behind the camera can be heard approaching a bathroom stall while looking for a student with the same name as the one associated with the racist post. When a girl, who is white, in the stall confirmed that was her name, the girl behind the camera threw a liquid at her and retreated amid a string of profanity.

"Don't ever show your (expletive) face around this school again, bruh. Kill yourself, bruh. Literally die. Like, you're a stupid (expletive) (sexist slur). Like, cry about it, bruh," said the girl who threw the liquid, who is not visible in the video. Her race is not clear.

Newton said he heard there were one or two videos being passed around, but hadn't seen any and didn't know the details. He said he typically leaves it in the administration's hands to handle the situations — "and if I need to get involved, then I get involved."

He said the administration is dealing with "a few students," but he did not provide a specific number. Disciplinary action for online comments and harassment is handled on a case-by-case basis and "there isn't one specific discipline that would happen in any of those given situations," according to Newton.

The high school administrators in their letter to parents said the school community needs to cultivate "a school culture where all students feel safe" and can learn without distractions.

"We will not create this type of community if we meet hate with harassment," they wrote. "We need mature thinkers, advocates, and leaders to help us solve these problems."

On Sept. 11, a consulting group presented an audit of the racial climate in East Lyme Public Schools that found at least a quarter of the community is ready to take the steps necessary to counter racism and advance diversity.

The study from the Providence, R.I.-based Equity Institute included recommendations to help the district create policies and practices "that raise historically silenced voices, shift the imbalance of power and privilege, and ensure equitable outcomes for all learners."

The Board of Education's focus on diversity, equity and inclusion came about at the urging of the grassroots group SCORE, which was known at the time as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter. The group emerged following the death of George Floyd, who was pinned by the neck under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Nickie Padilla, one of SCORE's directors and a candidate for the Board of Education, said over the phone Thursday that the incidents show the equity audit was "a necessary step" and its recommendations should be seriously considered.

"This just adds to our resolve in the work that we're doing, and we continue to move forward with it because we recognize that East Lyme has a lot of healing to do when it comes to racial issues," she said.

She suggested using restorative practices, instead of punishments like suspensions or expulsions, to bring together people who are harmed with the people responsible for the harm.

"That can be a great way to bridge the gap of understanding and bring two sides together, because what we're really looking for is unity, equity, inclusion. We're not looking to separate," she said.

Padilla questioned the administration's contention that they cannot eradicate racism.

"We created racism. That is a social construct," she said. "If we created it, then we can dismantle it."

e.regan@theday.com

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