An Open Letter to Principal O'Donnell from WHS Alumni

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An Open Letter to Principal O'Donnell from WHS Alumni

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Alumni of Wilton High School started this petition to Dr. Robert O’Donnell

Dr. O’Donnell,

 We, the undersigned alumni of Wilton High School, write to you to express our concern over an incident that occurred at the Wilton vs. Danbury home football game on November 11th, 2016. As you know, a group of students chanted “Build a Wall” in what appears to be an act of harassment directed at the Danbury players. While we find the incident itself repugnant, we are similarly dismayed by the Administration’s lackluster response to date. We thank you and the Administration for recognizing that these student actions were inappropriate, but do not feel that you have sufficiently recognized and addressed the underlying privilege and unintentional ignorance that can come from growing up in a sheltered, loving community like Wilton.

In your email to parents (dated 11/14/2016) and interview with Good Morning Wilton (dated 11/15/2016), you discussed your meeting with the students who participated in this chant and the Administration’s response to these issues.  I’ve included several excerpts of your responses from that conversation here. These are not contiguous passages and so we have demarcated these excerpts below:

Dr. O’Donnell:  There was also a concern, was it directed at Danbury, because that’s a diverse community? The [students] deny that at this point, they say, “It wasn’t because it was Danbury. It was because we feel this way and we have the right to say this. We can express that."

 Dr. O’Donnell: In my opinion I don’t find it appropriate. There are others in the community, as you know, who will say, “Wait a minute, the kids have a right to say that, and they should be able to express their views.” The students need to be able to understand the context and the impact of what they’re saying and that others are offended by it.

The behavior of this group of students was reprehensible and inexcusable, but not inexplicable in a school community that does not openly discuss such topics. As the leader of the school community, it is incumbent on you to respond to such behavior with appropriate severity. We recognize that as Principal you have numerous constituencies to balance, and as representative of these many groups a certain level of nuance is required in your response. However, such nuance runs the risk of trivializing or understating the origins and impacts of important issues.

To say that the problem with this behavior is that it “offends” other students fundamentally misses the larger issues of privilege and social responsibility that WHS (and the entire Wilton School System) has a responsibility to address. More importantly, it detracts from the importance of this social issue by not calling this incident what it truly was: an act of bigotry and racism. Racist intent is not a prerequisite for something to be identified as racist action. Whether or not the chants of “Build a Wall” were targeted at the diverse Danbury population is irrelevant, and the Administration should recognize that and respond accordingly.

It is important to note that this letter is not intended to demonize the students in their behavior; nor are we labeling the participating students and their peers or families racist. We are proud that nearly 60% of the town of Wilton voted to reject bigotry and hatred in the recent presidential election. Recognizing and rejecting unfair treatment of others is not a partisan issue, it is a human issue that members of both political parties embrace.

Instead of dismissing their language as offensive but harmless, we ask the WHS Administration to take concrete action and educate its students on the function of privilege in American society. Recognizing one’s privilege and using that privilege to fight injustice are cornerstones of our society. An important lesson in normal times, our current political environment demands immediate action. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the WHS Administration must educate students that inequality and injustice anywhere is a threat to equality and justice everywhere.

As former WHS students, we recognize that the critical conversations on inequality and discrimination were not an institutionalized part of our educational development. We are proud to note that the school administration has historically supported student efforts such as the WHS chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance (now the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network), several iterations of a debate team, and the Best Buddies program (which has long supported intellectually-disabled peers). These student-led initiatives benefited enormously from school support, but it is not longer sufficient for the school system to simply encourage student action.

Through this letter, we are recognizing our own privilege and the benefits we received from our WHS education and using them to fight for change. We ask the WHS Administration to discuss publicly the way they will become leaders in this conversation and formalize discussion of these critical issues in every classroom.

Diversity takes myriad shapes, and discrimination against those different from us exists in as many forms.  It is imperative that WHS teach students to actively examine the causes and impacts of intentional and casual discrimination. We ask the WHS Administration to educate and equip its students to identify discrimination and organize and advocate against it wherever it is found.

In a student body where approximately half the population is female, the curriculum must discuss gender equality. In a student body that lacks significant racial diversity, the curriculum must discuss the systemic racism (both historic and current) that affects minority communities in our country.  In a student body where LGBT youth develop their identity alongside their non-LGBT peers, the curriculum must discuss the impacts of societal and systemic bias that limit their constitutional freedoms.  

We thank you for the dedication you continue to show to WHS students, and we look forward to hearing about and further discussing your strategies to address our above concerns.


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