Swastika discovered in Middlebrook bathroom

A swastika drawn in red marker was found on a wall in a boys bathroom in the yellow section of Middlebrook School the morning of Thursday, Oct. 5.

Middlebrook Principal Lauren Feltz wrote a letter to parents the following day, in which she called the “hateful graffiti” a “deplorable act” and said the school’s administrative team “undertook a full investigation and began inspecting the site hourly.”

Principal Lauren Feltz told The Bulletin on Friday that the swastika was “immediately taken down” and a second swastika was later discovered. She said that was also “immediately removed.”

According to an Oct. 6 letter from Superintendent Kevin Smith, the parent of the child who drew the swastika came forward the morning of Friday, Oct. 6.

“While neither I nor any member of our administration will in any way minimize the impact of this incident,” Smith wrote, “I took some small comfort in learning that the child very clearly did not understand the full meaning of the symbol or the repercussions of drawing it.”

According to Feltz’s letter, school staff members are “collaborating with the child’s family,” and she assured parents that the school is responding to the issue “with both disciplinary action and explicit teaching for that student.”

“While no excuse can or should be made for this action, in talking with the student, it is clear that the intent in making the graffiti was not a message of hate,” she wrote.

“While the child understands the historical gravity of the symbol and anti-Semitism in general, the student was not personally intending to make an anti-Semitic statement. Of course, this in no way decreases the negative impact this has had on our school community.”

On Friday morning, Feltz said, the entire middle school simultaneously met with team leaders to discuss what happened.

The meetings began with a PA announcement from Feltz about the school’s mission statement, which calls for “providing a safe and nurturing environment for all of our students.”

With students, team leaders discussed “the specifics of the incident,” emphasized the importance of respecting “everyone in our Middlebrook family,” and communicated that there is “no place for hate” in Middlebrook or Wilton, said Feltz.

“We certainly want to make sure that we have a very clear response that we don’t tolerate hateful speech in any form,” she said.

“While this specific incident was a swastika, in the broader sense of showing respect, we don’t discriminate, belittle or disempower anyone for any reasons — including race, gender, sexual orientation, social status — anything like that.”

Feltz said the school has reached out to the Anti-Defamation League — a civil rights nonprofit whose mission is to stop the defamation of Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all — and will reach out to rabbis not just in Wilton, but those that service Middlebrook students.

“We’re really calling on students to speak up for themselves or for peers who are placed in uncomfortable situations,” said Feltz, “and that the adults at Middlebrook are united in wanting to support kids at a time when they need that support.”

Feltz said some teams “had more conversations than others” during the Friday meetings, but “the work will continue.”

“We will use our school climate team as a vehicle to continue on,” she said, “and the Anti-Defamation League has some really wonderful resources we can use.”

Feltz concluded her letter with an apology to “the larger Wilton community.”

“Together we work to ensure that our students are growing up in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment,” she wrote.

“Middlebrook students are charged with being agents for positive change in the world and to stand up against hate. Today we stand together as we take steps to help our community process and heal.”

Community leaders respond

“No child should ever be made to feel they are not welcome at our schools or in our town,” First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said in an Oct. 6 statement, and “any symbol of hate, particularly a swastika, has no place in Wilton or our society.”

On behalf of the town, Vanderslice expressed support for Jewish members of the greater Wilton community and said she has contacted Rabbi Rachel Bearman, leader of Temple B’nai Chaim, and members of the Wilton clergy.

“Though I firmly believe this action and others are not reflective of Wilton as a whole,” Vanderslice wrote, “we must continue to stand up and speak out against acts of hate in our community. We must continue working together to ensure they do not happen again.”

In an Oct. 6 letter to the editor, Bearman wrote that swastikas not only represent “the ideology and the group responsible for the decimation of millions,” but also contain “the story of the torture and murder of millions and millions of men, women and children.”

Bearman, who learned of the swastika incident at Middlebrook from a congregation member Thursday afternoon, said it is a “potent and stark reminder that cruelty can and will spread when good people are silent.”

She called on “every member of the community” to speak up and “denounce any behavior that threatens the spirit of a neighbor.”

“Whether it is a stone thrown through a window or a swastika scribbled in red Sharpie, these acts diminish us as individuals and as a collective,” said Bearman.

“Let us blot out the silence that accompanies incidents like this by sharing words of education, love and friendship.”

Bearman encouraged everyone to help support the school district administration and asked families to “resist the urge to dismiss this as an instance of ‘kids being kids.’”

“Instead,” she said, “I encourage every parent to sit down with their children and help them understand the pain that accompanies this symbol.”

Bearman told The Bulletin that she plans to “contribute to and support [Middlebrook’s] response” to the swastika incident, “as well as their work moving forward.”

Other incidents

Two swastikas were discovered at Wilton High School in September 2014.

On Sept. 22, 2014, a 15-year-old student was arrested after etching a swastika into a locker at the high school. The student turned himself in to police on a juvenile arrest warrant and was charged with intimidation based on bigotry, breach of peace and third-degree criminal mischief — all misdemeanors.

Four days after the arrest, another swastika was found etched into a wall in one of the school’s bathrooms. Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell told The Bulletin the person responsible for that swastika was never found.