Wilton alumni petition O'Donnell to educate students on privilege

Joseph Musso, Sarah Dorfman and Elizabeth Burnham, of the 2001 Wilton High School class, started a change.org petition on Thursday, Nov. 17, in response to the “act of harassment directed at the Danbury players” committed by some Wilton students during a Nov. 11 football game.

"Joe took the lead in distilling the opinions shared by many alumni on social media into a single letter," Dorfman told The Bulletin.

"It's important to continue to recognize that this an opinion shared by a broad swath of alumni.”

The petition asks for Principal Robert O’Donnell and the high school’s administration to “take concrete action and educate its students on the function of privilege in American society.”


“While we find the incident itself repugnant, we are similarly dismayed by the administration’s lackluster response to date,” the petition states.

The alumni thanked O’Donnell and the administration “for recognizing that these student actions were inappropriate,” but said they do not feel that “the underlying privilege and unintentional ignorance that can come from growing up in a sheltered, loving community like Wilton” has been “sufficiently recognized and addressed.”

“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,” the petition states.

“As the leader of the school community, it is incumbent on you to respond to such behavior with appropriate severity.”

As principal, “we recognize that [O’Donnell has] numerous constituencies to balance” and “as representative of these many groups, a certain level of nuance is required in your response,” the petition states, but “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,” the petition states, “fundamentally misses the larger issues of privilege and social responsibility” and “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, the petition states “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.”

Instead of dismissing the students’ language as “offensive but harmless,” the alumni are asking O’Donnell and the administration to not only help students recognize their privilege and use that privilege to “fight injustice,” but teach them that “inequality and injustice anywhere is a threat to equality and justice everywhere."

As former Wilton High School students, the petition states “we recognize that the critical conversations on inequality and discrimination were not an institutionalized part of our educational development.”

While these student-led initiatives like the Gay-Straight Alliance — now the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network — have “benefited enormously from school support,” the petition states, “it is not longer sufficient for the school system to simply encourage student action.”

The alumni are also asking the Wilton High School administration to “discuss publicly the way they will become leaders in this conversation and formalize discussion of these critical issues in every classroom,” as well as “educate and equip its students to identify discrimination and organize and advocate against it wherever it is found.”

“Diversity takes myriad shapes, and discrimination against those different from us exists in as many forms,” the petition states.

“It is imperative that [Wilton High School] teach students to actively examine the causes and impacts of intentional and causal discrimination.”

Support


As of 10:05 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 18, the petition had nearly 400 supporters, including alumnae Jacqueline Raposo ('99) and Mara Ventura ('04).

Raposo said she remembers the "racist backlash” that occurred when A Better Chance — a program that brings academically talented and motivated students of color from disadvantaged school districts to Wilton High School — was introduced in the 1990s, and "what little was done to foster honest discussion."

“Continuing to shy away from these discussions,” she said, does Wilton students and the community “a huge disservice.”

When Ventura was a student at Wilton High, she said, "it felt glaringly obvious" that she was "one of the only students of color."

“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].”

“The longer your silence and lack of meaningful action, the worse the message you send to your students, their families, and the Wilton community,” said Ventura.

“Choose to do the right thing, follow your values, and educate and protect your [Wilton High School] family.”

In a student body where “approximately half the population is female,” where “LGBT youth develop their identity alongside their non-LGBT peers,” and which “lacks significant racial diversity," the petition states, the curriculum must discuss:


  • Gender equality.

  • Systemic racism that affects minority communities.

  • The impacts of societal and systemic bias that limit the constitutional freedoms of the LGBT community.


“We thank you for the dedication you continue to show to [Wilton High School] students,” the petition concluded, “and we look forward to hearing about and further discussing your strategies to address our above concerns.”

Click here to view the petition.