The night of Friday, Nov. 11, the Wilton High School football team beat Danbury 28-0 and held a ceremony in honor of Veterans Day. While some consider it a night of celebration, something else happened that has others concerned.
During the game at Fujitani Field, a group of Wilton students were heard chanting “build the wall” — a phrase commonly heard at Donald Trump’s presidential campaign rallies, referring to the wall he’s said he would build at the United States-Mexico border to keep out immigrants.
While minority enrollment at Wilton High School is around 12%, minorities make up more than half of Danbury High School’s student body — a majority of whom are Hispanic.
“Shouting ‘build the wall’ at any game would be offensive,” said Wilton resident and father Kenneth Hoffman, “but while playing a school from a town with a higher Hispanic and African-American population, it is obviously and simply racist.”
Wilton resident and chair of the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee Stephen Hudspeth said he was shocked to hear what happened at the football game.
Even if it was “a stupid and thoughtless jeer at an opposing team that has more minority and recent immigrant players than Wilton’s team, it is as ugly as it is stupid,” he said.
“What our country desperately needs now is a coming together across all our differences — not a further driving apart.”
In a letter to parents on Nov. 14, Wilton High School Principal RobertO’Donnell said parents and community members contacted him about the incident, which he said was committed by “a small number of students.”
Based on reports from various students, Superintendent Kevin Smith told The Bulletin Wednesday morning, “it sounded like the initiators of the chant were two male students.”
Although the students involved in the chanting “denied offensive intent,” O’Donnell stated in his letter, “we recognize that many will feel offended by this particular phrase.”
The students O’Donnell spoke to, said Smith, “suggested that [the chanters] were supportive of the president-elect and [with it being] Veterans Day, they were kind of showing their pride that way and didn’t intend for it to be offensive.”
“Despite whatever the actual intent was,” said Smith, “there were many who found the chant very, very offensive — for sure.”
Hoffman found it hard to believe the intent was not to offend.
“Are we … willing to believe that these students did not have offensive intent?” he said. “If their intent was not racist or offensive, I fail to see what it was.”
Hoffman, who has asked O’Donnell to “pursue the issue with greater consequence to the students involved,” said the student chanters are “ignorant or racist — or perhaps both.”
While this “represents a failure of their own character and those of their families,” he said, “quiet complicity without consequence represents a failure of our school system as well.”
Smith said that “in no way does anyone here in the Wilton Public Schools condone that kind of speech.”
“We are one school community and students chanting ‘build the wall’ while students from Danbury Public Schools are on the football field is really offensive,” said Smith, who apologized on behalf of the school community. “That should not have happened.”
In his letter, O’Donnell said the high school recognizes that “sentiments continue to run high post-election” and it’s the mission of educators to “help students create dialogue and understanding around controversy and contention.”
Addressing the issue
“As a result,” O’Donnell said, “we will use this incident as a teachable moment, and foster discussion around the rights and corresponding responsibilities inherent in members of a civil society.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 16, Wilton High School students and staff addressed the incident during their advisory period, during which, Smith said, O’Donnell spoke to the entire faculty and student body about the need for tolerance, inclusivity and understanding.
“We have many people with diverse perspectives and we need to respect those diverse perspectives,” said Smith, adding that it’s important to have open dialogue and avoid offensive speech.
O’Donnell and high school staff members also crafted a series of discussion questions for students and staff to work on during the advisory period, said Smith.
That advisory period, he said, was just the first step.
Smith said he was scheduled to meet with O’Donnell, Safe School Climate Coordinator Kim Zemo and others later that day to not only “plan out the next steps,” he said, but also “look at what else we can do — not only at the high school, but districtwide — to really reinforce these values and help everybody understand and identify the big picture here.”
First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said the high school’s resource officer has been working with the school district “to understand what occurred” and will “continue to provide the same support to the schools as we always do.“
Since Trump was named president- elect, a number of hate-related incidents and crimes have been reported nationwide — including in Connecticut.
Last week, two Joel Barlow High School parents reached out to administrators to report that students in the cafeteria had led “build the wall” chants.
Joel Barlow Principal Gina Pin told The Redding Pilot that she is "unable to substantiate” the parents’ claim, as there was “no such report from the adults on duty in the cafeteria where the parents told me the alleged chanting took place.”
However, she said, the school will “investigate any claims that are made” and “take steps necessary to provide a safe learning environment for all of our students.”