Students to protest East Lyme High School's handling of racism
East Lyme — Students are walking out to protest what they describe as the high school administration's failure to denounce racist statements and actions.
Tori Buzzelli, a junior at the school and one of the organizers of the walkout set for Tuesday morning, said the goal is to create a sense of urgency around the issue.
"We are walking out because we feel that the administration has watched too much happen and heard about too much that's happened and hasn't condemned any of it," she said.
The walkout comes after school officials and police began investigating a Thursday assault in the 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 was recently 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."
Buzzelli said the administration needs to speak out against comments like those, as well as other examples of racism she cited as occurring routinely at the school, so that students will feel comfortable that issues are being handled.
This spring, a student was charged by police with a hate crime after allegedly leaving a racist slur on a vehicle belonging to a student of color in the parking lot.
Buzzelli, who identified herself as a Black, bisexual woman, said she has been called racist, homophobic slurs and was once told by a classmate that Black people should not be allowed in the same school as white people.
She said for the past two months she's had to comfort sobbing students "because someone said something racist to them and they wouldn't go to the school because they had no confidence in the school's ability to address racial incidents."
According to 2020 U.S. Census data, 81.7% of the East Lyme population is white. Salem, which sends students in grades nine through 12 to East Lyme High School, is 89.3% white.
In audio obtained separately by The Day, Principal Deb Roselli Kelly at a Monday morning assembly said school officials will pass "no judgment" on students whether they walk out or stay in school. She said the focus will be on a safe and orderly walkout.
She said administrators, teachers and students on the high school's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee — as well as a district-wide committee on the same topic — are working to address racism issues and planning another school assembly. She pointed to procedural changes being devised that include assigning bathroom monitors and implementing a sign-in, sign-out procedure in the lavatories.
The DEI committees are part 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.
She also told the students that administrators would have more time to focus on equity if they didn't have to spend as much time addressing behavior issues at school and at sports games.
"We need you to work to be your best self with one another, with teachers, in class, at games and on social media," she said.
Assistant principal Henry Kydd told students that if they walk out, he hopes it is not because they don't know where teachers and the administration stand on the issue of racism.
"If I haven't been clear enough already, we loathe it," he said. "We loathe it because it's wrong and we'll always fight to eradicate it here as part of our moral obligation as educators."
Kydd, who identified himself as the son of a French Canadian mother and a Black, West Indian and Mexican father, said he learned about the effects of racism in his own family. He talked about how some family members wouldn't attend his parents' wedding because it was an interracial marriage and that they had trouble finding a priest willing to perform the ceremony.
Kydd said he was shocked during his first Spirit Week as a social studies teacher at East Lyme High School 17 years ago to see a student walk through the commons carrying a Confederate flag. The situation made him ask himself if East Lyme High School was where he wanted to spend his career.
"When I left that day, I felt like maybe some of you feel right now. Not heard. Maybe not listened to. Maybe like the powers-that-be don't get it," he said.
Kydd said he didn't know what to say to make the situation better for the students but acknowledged "not knowing what to say isn't an excuse for not saying anything."
He outlined "four truths" at East Lyme High School.
"First truth," he said. "Racism is wrong, and it's not welcome here."
The second truth was that detention, suspension and expulsion "can't fix racism" or the wounds caused by racist things people say or write.
"Typical consequences and punishment are visible and can sometimes appease the masses, yes, but they don't always represent the best path forward for every situation," he said. "Know that what you see isn't always the whole story. Perception is not always reality."
The third truth was that the school needs students' help if things are going to improve and everyone is going to feel safe.
"We're not going to create this type of community by harassing one another. We're not going to create this type of community if we physically harm one another," he said.
The fourth truth was that students need to help each other.
"If anyone is in harm's way, it's your responsibility to get help for them or get someone to help them regardless of your level of like or dislike for them," he said. "We are all human beings. Period."
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton responded to a request for comment about the walkout to say there are some students who want to participate and some who don't.
"So we definitely support that, as well as supporting kids in continuing the conversations about issues at the high school and race and all of that," he said.
For students like Buzzelli, the assembly underscored the need for the walkout because the administrators still have not specifically called out racist statements and acts that happened in the school.
Buzzelli said the fact that the administration was able to pull all students and staff into the gym for the assembly shows they can act quickly if they want to, despite what she described as slow progress when it comes to taking action on diversity, equity and inclusion.
"It made students in the DEI group feel that our message was less important to the administration, which is why the walkout is so important tomorrow as well," she said. "We get to push our message to the intended audience and there is no slowing it down."
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