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Student's racist slur roils North Stonington school community

North Stonington — The father of a Wheeler High School freshman criticized the school system Wednesday for its handling of a racial incident involving his son.

Deondre Bransford said that last week, during a Wheeler baseball game, his son, who is Black, had a disagreement with a senior teammate, who is white.

“The senior got so upset with him that he told him to 'shut up, you (N-word),’” Bransford said. “Two white students stood up for my son, and my son didn’t even report this. It was the two white students who reported it. They jumped up to his defense and were like, ‘No, this is wrong.’”

Bransford said he and his son do not want the senior student to be “persecuted” because “we understand that everybody makes mistakes, everybody has a bad day, but it shouldn’t have happened.” After the game, the senior texted Bransford’s son to apologize, he said.

The larger issue to Bransford is the punishment assigned to the senior. He said while the older student was suspended for a few games, he is allowed to remain on the team.

Bransford said his son quit the team because he was angry that the senior was still going to be on the team. But, “after talking to some elders in the community, he decided he wasn’t going to let this kid steal his energy. He didn’t do anything wrong, and he should still be on the team.”

Bransford added that his daughter, who is a senior at Wheeler, sits in front of the senior student in her English class.

Since the incident, Bransford and other family members have been trying to figure out how the senior student was punished, but the school declined to divulge details due to confidentiality.

Superintendent Peter Nero said the Board of Education is going to be looking at the policy that the state has on racism and inequity.

“Any form of racist term that is used will be dealt with accordingly within the disciplinary power procedure handbook,” he said. “We don’t hide it, we don’t sweep anything under the rug. We are struggling like other school districts are right now, as well as the nation, with this issue. The Board of Education will be looking at the policy that was sent out, and they will be looking to renew the policy they have right now in accordance with the state guidelines.”

Nero and Bransford met to discuss the situation, and Bransford noted that he felt Nero “didn’t understand the severity of this word.” Bransford did credit Wheeler High School’s principal and vice principal for being proactive in response to the incident.

"They’re on top of it right now. A little too late, but I can appreciate the fact that they’re trying to do something now,” Bransford said. “They’re trying to set up committees, and they want me to be part of the committee where we get a group of people together to address these things and to come up with policy changes.”

Nero said Wheeler and the rest of North Stonington’s schools “will not accept any type of racist remarks from anyone.”

Two women who identified Bransford’s son as their nephew spoke during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. They were highly critical of the punishment doled out to the senior student.

Alyssa Kumpf, who said she is a Wheeler alumna with four children in North Stonington schools, including a freshman daughter at Wheeler, said similar instances of racism in school settings have led to harsher results for offending parties. She said that while parents were kept in the dark about disciplinary actions, the consequences for the senior student were well-known among the student body.

“It was made very clear to (the freshman’s) parents that the (senior) student’s punishment was to remain confidential. This is the polar opposite of what my daughter saw. The entire school was talking about it. Some were disgusted with how the situation was handled, while others appeared to find it funny, a joke of some sort,” Kumpf said. “If (the freshman student’s) fellow freshman teammates hadn’t threatened to walk off the ballfield until more happened, would this student have received a harsher punishment? I cannot with confidence say yes.”

Kumpf said Bransford’s son originally quit the team because “he was called the N-word by his team captain” and “he didn’t feel safe around this teammate.”

Laura Mooney, the other woman who identified the freshman student as her nephew, and who also has children in the school system, was outraged by the fact that the senior student was let back on the baseball team.

“This week we’ve heard that the student will no longer be a captain, will not attend practice or games for this week and will very likely sit the bench for the remainder of the season,” she said. “I have many questions, even more so now, in learning this. Why is he being benched instead of removed from the team? Does this have anything to do with protecting his future collegiate endeavors? Would these additional punishments have happened if we hadn’t complained?”

She implored the board to revisit the progressive disciplinary model.

“We were told by the superintendent that we have a zero-tolerance policy. This is not zero tolerance, and in my opinion, this situation should not be handled with progressive discipline,” she said. “How many times is a student allowed to call my nephew the N-word before they get a real punishment that hurts them? What does zero tolerance mean in this district?”

Board members said they would hold a public workshop on policies relating to racial discrimination on June 5. Some, such as member Pamela Potemri, took issue with the board dealing with this situation rather than the administration.

“If there is an issue, it goes to the superintendent, and that’s the normal process, so I guess I’m kind of confused why this is going to the board at this time,” Potemri said. “I think that we need to be really cognizant of the fact that that’s not what restorative practice is about, and that’s not how punishment and consequences should be dealt. It shouldn’t be meant to hurt in any way because these are young adults. ... it’s an opportunity to learn from both sides and from all perspectives.”

“I want this to be an opportunity for education and growth and certainly not an opportunity to promote an adult agenda at the expense of kids,” she added.

The board also mentioned that North Stonington school leadership is working with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Eastern Connecticut Conference to develop guidance for incidents like this one going forward.

Bransford said Wheeler set up a safety plan with his son. His son is going to sit and talk in a controlled environment with the senior student and let him know how he felt after he was called a racial slur.

"I think that’s good, and I think that’s good for the student, as well,” Bransford said. “Let’s face it, if he did this in college, he would’ve been kicked off the team and expelled from the school. But I don’t want to ruin this kid’s life.”

Bransford’s children have had to deal with racism at North Stonington schools before, he said ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. When his son was in eighth grade, a white classmate put his arm around him and said, ‘“Slavery, you remember that? Those were the good old days.’”

“This isn’t the first incident that happened, this won’t be the last incident that happens,” Bransford said of what happened last week. “My daughter had to go through crap a couple years ago because they had kids at the school who wanted to fly the Confederate flag on their cars.”

Bransford pushed back against Potemri’s comments during Wednesday’s board meeting, citing his son’s experience with racism in eighth grade.

“I believe the issue that you have with restorative practice is that it’s failed my child. This is the second incident that’s happened with my child,” he said. “When you talk about restorative practice, you’re failing a student that this has happened to before. He shouldn’t have to go through this and wait for restorative practice for you to change your policy. The policy should be looked at and changed right away.”

Bransford said he’d like his son’s experience and its aftermath to be a teaching moment. He said small Connecticut towns with predominantly white staffs, school boards and student populations are far from immune to the problems of more diverse and densely populated schools.

s.spinella@theday.com

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