Friday, January 15, 2021

Local News

Old Saybrook Addresses Racism as a Public Health Issue

Issues of racism have been in the spotlight in Old Saybrook in recent weeks, with a racist youth video gaining international attention and a quieter move by the town to recognize racism as a public health issue.

Old Saybrook Public School (OSPS) officials have determined that they will not punish Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) students for participating in a George Floyd re-enactment video that was posted to social media in October. The video was filmed off school grounds—the re-enactment is believed to have taken place near Town Hall.

“We determined that this was not a school matter,” said Superintendent of Schools Jan Perruccio. “It was, however, an important opportunity for education.”

In the video, one boy lies face down on the ground as another leans over him, taking hold of his arms and placing them behind his back.

“Get the ____ down on the ground,” someone says in a deep voice.

Another teen approaches and places his knee on the prone student’s neck as others who are sitting and standing nearby laugh.

Not all the participants were OSHS students, Perruccio said.

The video, which Perruccio said the teens uploaded to Instagram and possibly other social media platforms, was reported locally by WFSB Channel 3 News and as far as the United Kingdom by the Daily Mail.

According to the Channel 3 report, OSPS said it was taking the matter very seriously and initiating an investigation. A viewer reported the video to the police, according to the reporter.

In a statement provided to Channel 3, Perruccio said, “We are appalled by this video and have been intervening to address it. As educators, we recognize our important role in addressing this matter.”

Administrators and teachers at OSHS are “working with an individual from the Connecticut Coalition for Educational Justice and Culturally Responsible Curriculum,” said OSHS Principal Sheila Riffle.

“We are building workshops on equity, understanding, and antiracism that are intended to be delivered to groups of students and adults at OSHS,” she said.

“We are referring to this as Being Better Rams,” Riffle added, referring to the OSHS sports teams’ mascot.

Riffle said that teachers have discussed the video itself with students.

The school is also initiating “[a]dditional training plans for teachers during scheduled professional development [time] throughout the winter/spring,” she continued. We “will request input on next steps form original workshop participants to develop follow-up.”

Students have come forward to express a “desire to address these issues as a school community and a community at large,” she said.

Racism as a Public Health Crisis

About two weeks after the video appeared, the Old Saybrook Board of Selectmen (BOS) on Oct. 27 voted unanimously to adopt a resolution on Racism as a Public Health Crisis.

The resolution was drafted by Health Equity Solutions, a Hartford-based organization focused on attaining health equity across the state regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The version adopted by the Old Saybrook is nearly identical, with minor changes.

The resolution starts off with the statement that “racism is a social system with multiple dimensions; individual racism that is interpersonal and/or internalized or systemic racism that is institutional or structural, and is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks.”

According to Maryam Elahi, founder of Old Saybrook March for Justice (OSMJ), the resolution was sent to the BOS over the summer with 60 to 70 residents’ signatures. Several residents also turned up at BOS Zoom meetings to support it.

But the resolution is only a first step, she said. OSMJ, along with the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, of which Elahi is president and CEO, focuses its anti-racism efforts on three primary areas: health, education, and housing.

“There are a number of people in [OSMJ] who’ve been leading the group on education related conversations with the superintendent and teachers,” she said. They are “providing information—we have access to a whole bunch of training guides—to teachers” to aid them in teaching students about racism and its effects.

While many in town are treating the teens’ video as an isolated incident, Elahi said it is not.

“I personally witnessed four six- or seven-year-olds at the beach [in August] playing this game,” she said. “One of them pushed the other one down and put his knee on the other one’s neck and they all jumped up and down and cheered.”

The children’s parents were nearby, Elahi said, and did nothing to intervene.

“I mentioned this to the Old Saybrook selectmen and other people in [OSMJ] and I said, ‘When people say we don’t have problems in Old Saybrook and we don’t have to worry, I’m like, Are you kidding me?,’” she said.

“In five years what are these kids going to be doing?” she continued. “It’s on us to make sure” that kids in town are educated about racism.

“People seem to think it was this one incident, but if you’ve seen six-, seven-year-old boys doing it and then high school students do it, you’d better bet there are a lot of kids playing this game,” she said.

As a primarily a White community, Old Saybrook residents largely “don’t know people of color,” she continued. “So to them it seems like a harmless game. But it is racist and people need to call it so.”

As for the resolution, next steps can partially be guided by other Connecticut towns that have adopted it, like Middletown and Windsor.

Old Saybrook needs to evaluate “everything we do with a racial equity lens,” she said, including “how we budget money for our social services, how we think about our tax policy.

“We need to be asking questions like, ‘How does this impact people who are Black and brown who live in this community or may want to live in this community?’” she continued.

As for OSPS, several students are working with administrators and teachers to discuss “matters like this and how to work as a community within the town of Old Saybrook to give voice to concerns about racism,” said Perruccio.


Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at a.luria@shorepublishing.com.

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