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East Lyme High School continues to reckon with racist social media post

East Lyme — Ongoing tensions at East Lyme High School turned violent in a Thursday assault in the girls' bathroom that is being investigated by school officials and the police.

The situation comes after high school administrators over a month ago put out a warning that past racist messages were being recirculated by students and that "online harassment would not be tolerated" against those who made the original posts.

Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton said back in September he was not aware of physical altercations in the high school despite at least one post being circulated that showed a student being confronted by another, also in the girls' bathroom.

Parents and students have expressed concerns that the administration's failure to effectively address incidents related to racism have contributed to an unsafe climate for all students.

On Friday, Newton confirmed he had seen video of the Thursday assault. Footage on the social media platform Snapchat obtained by The Day shows a girl emerging from a stall to attack another girl in the public area of the lavatory. The victim was slapped and punched on the head, pulled by the hair and then stepped on and kicked as she lay on the ground protecting her head.

"The high school administration is addressing it and they immediately acted on it yesterday afternoon," Newton said Friday. He declined to go into specifics about disciplinary action based on privacy guidelines.

East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein said the department received a complaint from the victim's family Thursday and is investigating. He said Friday he was not aware of any calls made by the school for police or emergency services the day before.

The student attacked was the author of a post recirculated among students on Snapchat that said things 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."

Andy Slager, the student's father, said she originally sent the message privately to another friend between one and two years ago. He said she does not feel that way now.

"I don't believe it's how she felt then, you know," he said. "She's got a bad habit she picked up from me of saying stupid things when she's upset. She feels like she's trying to hurt somebody back."

Slager attributed his daughter's statements to "internalized negative feelings" that came about in fifth or sixth grade, when the family lived in Michigan. That's when he said she experienced minor bullying from a student who "happened to be Black" that neither of her parents realized had affected her so deeply.

"So when it initially came to light a year or two ago, we addressed it then," he said. "I guarantee you that's not how she feels now."

Slager described the harassment from students toward his daughter as constant. He said the school after the September incident assigned someone to provide security for her during school, which worked until recently.

He cited an incident caught on video about a week ago during which she was spit at by the same student who ultimately assaulted her.

Slager acknowledged his daughter has not always reacted to threats on social media like he "would have preferred" and has been disciplined by the school because of it.

"I'm not saying she's never responded," he said. "I'm sure she has. I know certain times when she has, I talked to her about it."

He said he is asking the Board of Education to expel the girl who assaulted his daughter.

Others told The Day that the school is not addressing needed discipline on either side.

Nikki Buzzelli, whose child is a biracial student at the high school, said the victim in Thursday's assault has continued to display "an unapologetic hatred to some of the students at the school" since the racist post resurfaced.

"The school never condemned or addressed this girl's actions and words other than protecting her in school — and even that the school has failed in," she said.

Buzzelli said the school's failure to act in a decisive way threatens the progress made toward the district's equity goals, which included a recent equity audit to better understand the racial climate in the East Lyme school system.

The audit is one element of a strategic plan for "countering racism" through diversity, equity and inclusion. Questions to be addressed over five years include how current policies might perpetuate racism and how the schools do at affirming students of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds.

The talk of equity by school officials seems hollow when students feel racist attitudes and behaviors are being accepted, according to Buzzelli.

"The students are showing their displeasure in feeling unsupported and unsafe in the school and it's now turning into physical assaults on this girl," she said. "That can't be tolerated, either."

Kris Wraight, a restorative justice trainer and facilitator from New London, said she worked with East Lyme Public Schools on one occasion in the past to address racist comments by a student and would like to do it again.

Restorative justice is a community accountability process that brings together those affected by a particular incident, according to Wraight. That means sitting down the person harmed, the person who did the harm, members of both families and representatives from the school.

"It doesn't view harm as a violation of a rule or a law; it sees it as a violation of a relationship," Wraight said. "So the harm needs to be acknowledged and the community needs to come together to figure out what needs to be done to repair it."

She said traditional punishments like detention, suspension and expulsion fail to address how students' actions affect those around them.

"The problem they're facing right now, I believe if restorative justice had been used in the past, we wouldn't be facing," Wraight said.

She pointed to the recirculation of the racist posts, which was an act decried by principals and assistant principals in a letter to parents. Newton, the superintendent, told The Day at the time that the initial posts had already been "addressed and dealt with" and that continuing to share them was a form of harassment.

"If the harm had really and truly been addressed, then new incidents related to the old harm wouldn't continue to happen," she said. "That's not meant in judgment, but it is to say restorative justice offers a new path forward."

Wraight emphasized everyone involved must be there voluntarily, and that the one responsible for the harm has to admit it.

Slager said he would welcome that kind of opportunity for his daughter. He said he's asked the school to facilitate sit-downs after two previous altercations involving his daughter but it hasn't come to fruition.

Without facilitation, he said he's not seeing a willingness from other students to have a conversation.

"Even if they think she's racist, the appropriate way to handle that, you would think, would be through conversation, through education, through social interactions — not physical fights," he said.

Buzzelli reiterated something different needs to be done.

"The school needs to shoulder its share of responsibility in what happened," she said. "If they had been proactive and equitable in their response to the initial incident, something like yesterday's incident would never have occurred."

e.regan@theday.com

 

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