Wilton apologizes to Danbury for offensive chants

One week after at least two Wilton High School students chanted “build the wall” during the Wilton-Danbury football game at Fujitani Field on Friday, Nov. 11, Wilton High School issued an apology to Danbury High School and residents of the city.

“We fully recognize and acknowledge that this language is offensive to the [Danbury High School] community and to the broader Danbury community,” said the apology, which Danbury High School Principal Dan Donovan read to the student body the morning of Friday, Nov. 18.

“Further, we recognize that it is not the intent of our students’ words and actions that matter, but rather the impact on your students, your school, and the Danbury community that truly matters.”

The apology said Wilton values its “experience with Danbury’s students and staff” and respects them as “fellow human beings committed to equality, civility, and mutual understanding.”

“This behavior is not emblematic of our general beliefs — nor something that is congruent with our vision statement — which champions the important constructs of leadership, integrity, and empathy,” the apology said.

“Clearly, some of our students fell short of meeting these standards on that night.”

During the Friday night football game, 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.

“In no way does anyone here in the Wilton Public Schools condone that kind of speech,” Superintendent Kevin Smith told The Bulletin last week.

“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,” he said. “That should not have happened.”

Community response

The incident caused a stir amongst residents of both Wilton and Danbury, who took to social media to express their condemnation and concern over what happened.

In a written response to Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell, who addressed the incident in a Nov. 14 letter to parents, Wilton resident and father Kenneth Hoffman asked him to “pursue the issue with greater consequence to the students involved.”

“Shouting ‘build the wall’ at any game would be offensive, but while playing a school from a town with a higher Hispanic and African-American population, it is obviously and simply racist,” said Hoffman.

While this “represents a failure of their own character and those of their families,” Hoffman said, “quiet complicity without consequence represents a failure of our school system as well.”

On Thursday, Nov. 17, a group of Wilton High School alumni started a petition calling on O’Donnell and high school administration “take concrete action and educate its students on the function of privilege in American society.

As of 10:05 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 20, the petition had more than 650 supporters, including alumnae Mara Ventura (‘04), who said “it felt glaringly obvious” that she was “one of the only students of color” when she attended Wilton High School.

“Thankfully, I didn’t have to face blatant racism like what happened at the Danbury football game,” she said, “but if I had, I would expect my administration to take swift action to demonstrate the value and importance that the few of us brought to [Wilton High School].”

Also on Thursday, members of Wilton High School's student government wrote a letter disapproving of the offensive chants and stating that “there is no viable excuse in defense of them.”

Later that day, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton called for a formal apology in a letter to O’Donnell after receiving “several calls, as well as notifications through social media describing the pain that those comments have caused.”

In his letter to O’Donnell, Boughton thanked him for “taking this issue very seriously” and acknowledged that the incident “is not representative of the majority of [the Wilton] student body.”

Referring to O’Donnell’s Nov. 14 letter, in which he said the incident would be used as a “teachable moment,” Boughton suggested that “the crux of this teachable moment should be an apology to our students, and our community, for the hurt that has been caused.”

“Part of becoming a citizen and engaging member of our community,” Boughton wrote, “is knowing how and when to communicate our beliefs, whether they be political or otherwise.”

Civic responsibility is important and “part of that responsibility is accountability for our actions,” said Boughton, which is why he requested a formal apology to not only the Danbury High School student body, but the Danbury community at large.

After Danbury received Wilton’s apology on Friday, Boughton tweeted that it had been “accepted” and thanked Wilton High School for “building bridges."

Systematic approach

Wilton High School is taking a “systematic approach” to address what happened at the football game, O’Donnell explained in a follow-up letter on Nov. 17.

Members of the high school’s faculty met on Wednesday, Nov. 16, to discuss post-election challenges, how to support the students and school community, and measures they will take “to ensure a safe and supportive school setting for all members of our community,” said O’Donnell.

Earlier that day, O’Donnell addressed the entire Wilton High School student body and faculty during advisory period.

“I focused our school on the message that our words and actions are important and that it is not merely the intent of these words and actions,” O’Donnell said, “but their potential impact on others that is paramount.”

In his message to the school, O’Donnell said the days following the presidential election have not only been “challenging for some” and “celebratory for others,” but have also “led to some discord in our school and the broader community around our divergent and sometimes conflicting ideologies.”

“While we may hold differing views on politics and society, we all share a responsibility to ensure that each member of the school community is valued, respected, and supported,” O’Donnell said.

“Further, we must conduct ourselves in a manner that echoes this level of respect beyond the school walls to members of society with whom we interact.”

O’Donnell said speech that “marginalizes any members of your school community or compromises our vision to promote leadership, integrity, scholarship and empathy” cannot and will not be accepted or tolerated.

He asked students to “recognize that in every interaction and experience, your words and actions matter in this school community and beyond” and “understand that it is not only the intent of these words and actions that matter, it is also the impact on other members of the community.”

O’Donnell’s message was followed by an instructional task to promote productive, guided discourse pertaining to inclusion, empathy and civility.

During the rest of the advisory period, teachers and students worked to understand the potential impact of words and their meanings and discussed how to express views in “a civil and productive manner, by respectfully and actively listening to other’s viewpoints and, when necessary, resolve differences and conflicts of opinion,” according to O’Donnell.

As part of Wilton High School’s approach to address the issue, said O’Donnell, psychologist, performer and poet Michael Fowlin is scheduled to share his “You Don’t Know Me Until You Know Me” presentation with the entire school next month.

The presentation is designed to “create an atmosphere of worldwide inclusion — not just tolerance — towards all people,” said O’Donnell.

Since the election, O’Donnell said, Wilton High School’s “collective focus … has been on educating our students and helping them make sense of these times.”

Although it has “a talented administration and faculty, who are fully capable of leading and guiding us through this time period,” and “outstanding, supportive parents and community members,” said O’Donnell, “our school community will need the further support and understanding of the Wilton community as we go forward together.”

“As a public school,” he said, “we know our mission includes fostering civil discourse in a safe and respectful space.”