Video: Officials address fear among students after hate message

Some Middlebrook School students were afraid to go to school today. Some went in early to post messages of goodwill and support near the locker of a student who found a hate message posted there yesterday.

Such was the reaction of students following an incident in which a sticky note with the message “Jews will burn” was stuck to the locker of a sixth grader on Oct. 26.

First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith, Rabbi Rachel Bearman of Temple B’nai Chaim, state Rep. Gail Lavielle, and other town officials and members of the clergy along with Steve Ginsburg of the Anti-Defamation League gathered at town hall Friday afternoon, Oct. 27, to denounce the incident and promise action to foster a greater sense of inclusiveness within the Wilton community.

“What happened yesterday at the Middlebrook School and the previous incident are ugly, unacceptable, and wrong,” Vanderslice said, referring to a Nazi swastika that was scrawled in a school bathroom on Oct. 5. “This is a painful time for our Jewish community and for the Wilton community at large. I want every Jewish student and their parents to know the town leadership stands with them in support of them. We are committed to being a community which is welcoming and safe.”

She said the incidents were a “flashpoint and a call to action.” She promised action in an effort to make it uncomfortable for people to spread “such meanness and hate.”

Calling the incident “reprehensible,” Smith sought to reassure the community the schools are safe. “We take all appropriate steps to assure the safety and well-being of our children. … our children are safe because our teachers and staff members surround them with love, with compassion, care and sensitivity.”

He called on families to discuss and remind children of the seriousness of the situation “and why we must make it our highest priority.”

Bearman said Jewish families must now realize this incident will be part of their story, but they and the community can “write the next chapter of those stories.” Adults, she added, have the responsibility to remind their children they will stand for them and by them.

This incident, she said following the press conference, “is putting everyone on higher alert. It’s stressful and scary and sad for all of us.”

Lavielle referenced a meeting called for parents and school officials Friday morning and said “it is clear that an enormous amount of pain and fear is rippling through the community.” It is important, she said, to acknowledge the “noxious effects of hate — cruelty and violence — whether through words or deeds.”

In the past year and a half there has been a 100% rise in hate incidents reported in Connecticut to the ADL, Ginsburg said, many of them in schools, many anti-Semitic in nature.

“The measure of a community is not what happens, but the response,” he said, adding he was heartened by what he saw of school leadership at the morning meeting.

While police are pursuing an investigation, Ginsburg said the incident was likely done by a student, and the community must be ready to forgive. “We need to welcome that person … turn them into an ally,” he said.

Vanderslice said the meeting with about 300 parents “was really powerful.” She said she heard parents say their children were afraid to go to school. As someone who has lived here some 30 years and always felt safe, she said, “my child would have the same fear.”

When asked if he was surprised about the age group that was involved in the incident, Smith said he was surprised by the language and targeting. But, he added, in the last year hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents in middle schools have occurred across the country.

“There is a developmental aspect to it,” he said, which makes it all the more important to teach the power and significance of such symbols, whether harm is intentional or not.

“We can’t brush this off and say they are kids.”

Vanderslice also praised Middlebrook principal Lauren Feltz, saying, “I couldn’t imagine a better principal … her willingness to say we have a problem and we are going to fix it.”

Others attending the press conference included the Rev. Anne Coffman of Wilton Congregational Church, the Rev. Shannon White of Wilton Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Alon White of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Caroline Norton Smith of Wilton Baptist Church, and Capt. Rob Cipolla and Capt. Tom Conlan of the Wilton Police Department.