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East Lyme High School students call for action on racism during walkout

East Lyme — Roughly a quarter of the high school population walked out of class Tuesday morning as a dozen students stood before them to ask for their help in addressing racism and other forms of discrimination.

Tori Buzzelli, a biracial junior and an organizer of the walk out, said she appreciated the students who came out in support of those who have been struggling with discrimination since they were born.

Based on 2020-21 data compiled by the State Department of Education, there were 1,010 students enrolled in the high school. Of those, 15 were Black, 67 were Latino, 96 were Asian and 59 were two or more races.

Buzzelli acknowledged society won't change immediately. "But the hope is that we can reach out and get help putting in an effort to change these things," she said.

The walkout was a visible manifestation of a recent study that found East Lyme Public Schools had reached the "tipping point" for change. It refers to the social science theory that at least one-quarter of a community's population needs to take a stand if change is going to happen.

The students who spoke from the football field bleachers at the roughly hourlong event shared the belief that the administration is not doing enough to denounce discrimination.

The walkout began when approximately 250 students left the building about 8:55 a.m., crossing over to the football field and dropping their backpacks in a pile near the fence before taking to the turf in front of the bleachers. It was an orderly turnout supported by school administrators who on Monday pledged in a letter to parents that they would ensure a safe environment so students could "express themselves appropriately and safely."

Some carried posterboard signs with messages like "We need justice" and "Silence breeds violence." Another read, "If you're tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it."

The walkout comes after school officials and police began investigating a Thursday assault in a girls bathroom, some of which was caught on video and posted on the social media platform Snapchat. The student who was shown being slapped, punched, kicked and pulled by the hair was the author of a racist message in the past that recently was recirculated widely on social media.

The girl attacked last week had written the original racist message privately to another student between one and two years ago, according to her father. The message included 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."

Haleigh Miller, a biracial sophomore, reiterated the mantra emblazoned on numerous signs when she said "tolerating racism is racism."

She described the post shared online as part of a history of racism in the school.

Among the more high-profile events over the past several years was the arrest this spring of a student on a hate crime charge after allegedly writing "(N-word) wagon" in pollen on a vehicle belonging to a student of color. In 2015, several parents and students told The Day that an incident occurred during Spirit Week in which some students staged a prank lynching and carried a Confederate flag. The school that year brought in the Anti-Defamation League for a daylong event called "The Truth About Hate."

Miller criticized what she described as a lack of consequences imposed by the school administration in these instances and others.

Federal privacy laws and the juvenile court system prevents school officials and the police from divulging much information about student discipline and arrests. But students like Miller say that adults not saying anything leaves students of color feeling unsafe and invalidated.

"The school claims that it wants to help us, but by protecting and ignoring these harmful acts, students of color are left vulnerable and unprotected by centuries of discrimination and hate crimes," she said.

Junior Patrick Conoway, a self-described cisgender, straight, white, able-bodied male, said acknowledging privilege allows people to "go about life with empathy." He pointed to parents and guardians as important factors in any change to the current racial climate at the school.

"If you take away anything, please let it be this: Tell the adults in your life that a safe school climate is more important than any academic course you may take in high school and that without their support, we cannot create change," he said.

Conoway told students about an open conversation on race hosted by the school administration during lunch Monday that he described as poorly attended. He said it's going to take more people getting involved if anything is going to change.

He suggested the school curriculum is one of the most significant ways to address current concerns among students. "This would include but not be limited to learning even more about how the slavery systems of the past transcended into our government's and society's policies, learning about unsung heroes from the Black, LGBTQIA+ and feminist communities, removing old textbooks that idolize problematic white men, and taking time to discuss our own stories of adversity."

Junior Quincy Gates-Graceson said growing up in East Lyme since second grade has exposed him to a lot of microaggressions that pile up over time. "It's not always the blatant N-word across the hallway," he said. "It's the unintentional comments from peers or so-called friends that sting and show ignorance, like someone playing with your hair and baa-baaing like a sheep."

He said he doesn't expect the problems he's been experiencing for years to be solved overnight. "Maybe the school doesn't know how to fix us," he said. "We need to figure this out together."

Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the walkout but sent a letter to parents that credited the students with doing an "excellent job sharing a message that continues to be part of ongoing discussions" all over the country.

"The high school administration, staff and students are collectively working to ensure this event becomes a catalyst for continued work, effort, and dialogue spearheaded through the High School Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee," he said.

e.regan@theday.com 

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