Ledyard school community still dealing with racist incidents
Ledyard — Parents are working to reckon with a spate of recent reports of hate speech at Ledyard schools.
Nina Cotugno-Diaz, the parent of two Ledyard schools students, organized a demonstration Wednesday evening meant to “build a network of parents who want better, to hear our children and listen to their suggestions as well as echo their voices so they are better heard,” according to the event’s description.
Three parents and about four children demonstrated outside the Ledyard High School entrance on Wednesday to bring more attention to the issues.
“My hope is to create a network of support for other parents, for other youth, be it the elementary level, middle school, high school, where they don’t feel alone in feeling like nothing’s being done, and they don’t feel alone in the sense of they’re not the only ones who are fed up or frustrated,” Cotugno-Diaz told The Day.
She listed several incidents of hate speech she'd heard of from members of the community and her own children. Ledyard Schools Superintendent Jay Hartling confirmed that there were multiple recent incidents involving hate speech.
One incident involved Bacon Academy parents at a basketball game between the two schools in February. The New London State's Attorney's Office announced Monday that there is "insufficient evidence" to charge the adult spectators.
But Cotugno-Diaz also was talking about the use of the n-word in a seventh grade math class, on a bus and in a video showing students singing "Happy Birthday" in the boys’ locker room at a Ledyard school, among other incidents.
She said she is frustrated with a perceived lack of response from the Board of Education and Hartling. She took exception to Hartling telling her, “I’m not sure what it will take to have these conversations” about racism in school.
“I’m willing to sit in the discomfort that it takes to start these conversations,” she said. She said she's spoken to quite a few parents, youths and people with ties to the schools, who all have shared their concerns with her.
The Board of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
Cotugno-Diaz said she and others are not convinced that the consequences have been sufficient. Hartling maintains that the district cannot legally share how it disciplines its students in any case.
“Every time we’re told, ‘It’s being dealt with. We can’t discuss punishment,’” Cotugno-Diaz said. “‘Punishment isn’t the only factor, we have to educate and get these kids who have used these phrases back into good standing with the rest of their peers.' I support that thinking, but ... obviously something isn’t working because the same type of incidents keep happening.”
Jordyn Cotugno is a freshman at Ledyard High School and one of Cotugno-Diaz’s daughters. As she sat in front of the school entrance on Wednesday, she said she’s seen racism in school firsthand.
“Most of it was in eighth grade, that was one of the hardest years. There was a lot of white people using racial slurs, derogatory language, toward minorities,” Cotugno said, noting that the racism wasn’t directed at specific students but minorities at large.
While the administration can't publicly divulge punishments, students are usually aware of how other students are being disciplined. Cotugno said she and other students have been disappointed by what they say is a lack of administrative response.
“It’s usually the Black kids who end up getting punished more for using the n-word rather than white kids,” Cotugno said.
As for whether this is a concern for other students, “I think everybody just got used to it because nothing happens, so it continues,” Cotugno said. “People stopped caring when they realized nothing was happening.”
Hartling, who had an in-depth conversation with Cotugno-Diaz during Wednesday's event, said he is aware of parents' concerns.
“We are not by law permitted to share the punishments that children receive for violating our community standards, so that creates a challenge because I think some people would like to see those punishments be more public, which is not something we’re going to do,” Hartling said. “Consequences will range based on what is developmentally appropriate and on the incident; it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It may be a suspension, it may be a suspension and removal from activities ... there are different things that can happen.”
He said hate-related incidents are approached first with a consequence or punishment, second by trying to figure out a way to restore that student in the community they harmed, and third to provide education to the offender.
“It’s such a permeating challenge for all of us, but ... we also have to recognize that they’re children. I’ve struggled because we’ve had adults who’ve put children’s names on Facebook, and I find that completely counterproductive as well,” Hartling said. “We know about these incidents, children have been punished for these incidents, and staff is actively working to counsel and make sure it doesn’t happen again."
Parent Al Mayo said he has “three brown children in the Ledyard schools, one in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school.” As he held a sign reading, “The conversation has to start somewhere,” he explained that what happened at the Bacon game was the impetus for his attendance Wednesday night.
“My concern is their safety, just like the other kids’ safety," he said. When he learned the state’s attorney isn’t pressing any charges in the Bacon incident, he said, "I had to stand up for my kids and other students who had to face this.”
Another parent, Ann Holland, said she was aware of the incidents of racism Cotugno-Diaz described in the Facebook event description. “Sometimes they’re doing that for attention, because what’s the worst thing you can say?” Holland asked.
“The n-word,” Mayo replied.
“The white kids don’t know the magnitude of the word because they’ve never been called anything close to it,” Holland added.
Cotugno-Diaz said her daughter Kyleigh Diaz, who is in seventh grade, stood up to a student using the n-word in a class but was told by a paraeducator that she couldn't go to the office to report the student.
“My daughter is Puerto Rican and Italian, and she has white-passing privilege, and she knows it. She has no problem calling out people whether it’s kids her age or adults who use racist or discriminatory language, and she wanted to go to the office with two of her African American friends,” Cotugno-Diaz said. “But the para told her absolutely not, you can go sit down. My seventh grader looked at the teacher and was like ... 'That’s not right, I need to go report this.’”
Cotugno-Diaz then got a phone call from her daughter, who she found outside the school alone with her backpack, crying.
“She could not even gather herself to walk back into the building with me to find out what happened," she said. "So I dragged her back in, and when they found out she wasn’t allowed to report it, the assistant principal said, ‘This is embarrassing on behalf of the school.'”
Kyleigh Diaz also described what happened that day, saying she eventually went up to the student, “and I was like, ‘You know that’s racist, right? You’re saying racial slurs.' And he said, ‘Yes, I know, but I am racist, I don’t care.'” She said the student was temporarily suspended but was back about a week later, and the incident was not discussed with the class.
While Hartling doesn’t believe there has been an increase in racist incidents, he said he’s noticed more students identifying racist behavior. “One of our explicit efforts is helping kids stand up to things that they see are wrong within their schools, so when kids hear language that’s inappropriate, even if they’re not involved, kids aren’t walking by this stuff anymore," he said.
Hartling said schools are working with the Board of Education’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in developing steering committees focused on “specific areas that we can work on as a district.”
“Earlier this year, all of our administrative team spent about 25 hours of exploration of the topic in our schools and issues that students face,” he added. “I can say with complete confidence that the issues that have been brought up ... have been addressed.”