Amity High leader wants school to be a 'model in dealing with bigotry and hate'

A school board meeting at Amity High School in Woodbridge on Nov. 12.

A school board meeting at Amity High School in Woodbridge on Nov. 12.

Amity High School senior Simon Flaherty is among the proud Jewish students who shocked the Board of Education Monday, Nov. 12, with compelling words about persistent anti-Semitism at the nationally top-ranked school.

“Even when I am walking with my other Jewish friends and see a certain group of teens, we scatter and walk in a different direction out of fear of hearing them yell something like, ‘I’m a Nazi’ or ‘The Jews deserve to die,’” he told them. “Hearing the same words in my school that were uttered by the man that took 11 lives in Pittsburgh solely based on the fact that these people were Jewish truly terrifies me.”

Three days after the crisis was uncovered, jolting the quiet, suburban community, Interim Superintendent of Schools James Connelly said Wednesday that the last thing he wants is for Amity High School to become a “poster child” for anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate. The school serves students from Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge.

“My whole thing is, we’ll address it, we’ll get through it and I don’t want this to define Amity High School,” Connelly said Wednesday. “We have to address it and become a model in dealing with bigotry and hate.”

A steady stream of compelling student speakers such as Flaherty prompted the administration to take immediate action against the climate of anti-Semitism.

Administrators stepped up security, brought the Anti-Defamation League in to devise an anti-hate education plan tailored to Amity and made counselors available for students who are scared.

On Wednesday the plan of action became broader, as Connelly met with elementary school principals in Orange, Woodbridge and Bethany to keep them in the loop and include them in the community solution. He said the district needs the cooperation of private schools, too, in fighting hate.

Connelly said that while it will be up to the elementary schools to address the issue at their level, the schools can’t operate in “silos.”

He said the community of parents, rabbis and other faith-based leaders began joining forces Wednesday and many students availed themselves of counseling and discussion groups offered by the ADL.

Students at the school said they tried to get through to administrators long before Monday’s public comment portion of the meeting, but their fears concerning anti-Semitism hadn’t been taken seriously.

While it might come as a surprise that anti-Semitism would be so present in a school with a large Jewish population, Andy Friedland, associate director of the ADL Connecticut office, said it typically is higher in areas where there are more Jews.

Students told stories of recently finding swastikas on a desk and on a bathroom stall, and being subjected to hate speech in the hallway. A swastika was discovered on a desk the morning after the meeting, but there are questions about whether it already existed but was just noticed through stepped-up vigilance.

Many of the students who spoke Monday said the most recent offenders are members of the football team, but all they received was a one-day suspension.

“We cannot talk about personnel, discipline or any of those matters,” Amity athletic director Ernie Goodwin said when asked to confirm.

Friedland said anti-Semitism can happen anywhere and the measure of a community is how it responds, rather than that the incidents happen.

Friedland said the goal is to provide a safe, inclusive environment for students and part of that involves teaching them about the impact of their words.

Students Monday said they feared the climate inside the school and walking to their cars to possibly find destruction.

One student said she opened an English book sophomore year and found a swastika and then junior year was met with one on her desk in a class where she learned about the similar genetic composition of every human being.

“I was reminded of the hate that tears us apart,” she said.

Students who streamed to the lectern Monday ended their comments with, “I do not feel safe here.” Students said the climate of anti-Semitism has been building for ages.

Connelly has said under the plan for change — which will be long term and substantive — the district will lead in partnering with the religious leaders, advocacy groups such as the ADL, state and federal officials, youth groups and “other people of good will.”