SOUTHINGTON — Complaints of racial bullying at a recent Board of Education meeting surprised and disheartened school officials, who said speakers made it clear there was work to be done on the issue.
A group of residents, many of them minorities, said during a school board meeting Thursday that children of color have experienced differential treatment and racism for years, including racial slurs, from white classmates. They also complained of unequal discipline and questioned the lack of diversity among school district staff, some pointing out the board itself has no minorities.
School leaders said they’d consider changes proposed by members of the Southington Women for Progress group, but defended the district’s discipline process as fair.
The meeting Thursday was the first since a Snapchat video circulated online last month in which a Southington High School student threatened black students. The 17-year-old student was charged with breach of peace by police. His case has been sealed due to his age.
Any discipline he may have received from the school district was not released, with school officials citing state and federal confidentiality laws. Students who spoke Thursday said they were frustrated not knowing whether those who had racially bullied them suffered any consequences.
Board Chairman Brian Goralski said discipline was a complicated matter. Consequences can depend on the student, with special needs students facing different consequences for an offense than typical students. School administration also has more information about a situation through video surveillance and multiple interviews than a parent.
“There’s a method that’s fair that’s used by the administration at all levels,” Goralski said. “We do the best we can with the facts and evidence before us.”
A greater percentage of Southington’s minority students faced discipline in the previous school year than white students: In the previous school year, 3.8 percent of white students received at least one suspension or were expelled, compared to 14.1 percent of black students and 7.5 percent of Hispanic students.
“It’s an issue that people brought up. I don’t know where we stand with that,” School Superintendent Tim Connellan said. “We have to look at everything.”
According to state data, the district in the previous school year was 82 percent white students, 8 percent Hispanic, 4 percent mixed race, 3.5 percent Asian and 2 percent black. The number of minority students has been increasing in recent years and the number of white students declining.
Southington is not unlike many other towns in regards to discipline rates and low numbers of minority educators, Connellan said.
A report released in April by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that white students represent 50.3 percent of enrollment nationwide, but account for just 32.5 percent of those suspended. Conversely, black students account for 15.5 percent of enrollment but 33.8 percent of those suspended.
The GAO report also found Hispanic students and students with disabilities also account for disproportionate rates of suspension, and that boys are more likely to be suspended than girls.
Some said hiring more minorities could help, but Connellan said black and Hispanic teachers often gravitate toward districts with more minorities, leaving other school districts with predominantly white staff.
“We do everything we do so that we can have the very best staff in front of our students,” Connellan said. “That’s our primary concern. We hire the best possible people we can, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion.”
Cheryl Hilton, a local real estate agent and member of Southington Women for Progress, had five proposals for the board that included training for teachers to realize their own biases, a less “Eurocentric” curriculum and an equity audit by a third party. Hilton had another group member read the proposal to the board on Thursday, saying that the board wouldn’t listen to someone “brown” like herself.
She said Friday that the board’s response was “predictable” and questioned whether anything effective would be done. Hilton said she’s been bringing up these issues to the board for years.
“Has anything meaningful been done?” she asked. “The answer is ‘no,’ in my opinion.”
She also said “the overall arching theme was that (minority students) don’t feel valued and they don’t feel safe.”
Goralski said safety was the district’s first priority and that leaders would develop a plan to make students feel heard and safe.
Connellan said the stories of racism experienced by students horrified him.
“There’s just no excuse for that,” he said. “That shouldn’t be. Nobody should experience that.”
Connellan said he was encouraged by the community’s rejection of the video posted to social media last month, as well as the nature of most Southington residents.
“We do have really, really good staff and we have good families,” he said. “That gives me hope.”