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Westport Ct Schools Calendar

In CT school, bitter divide over alleged antisemitic bullying. Parent: District tried to silence family

The chair of the Connecticut school district Board of Education has fired back on claims that the district mishandled allegations of antisemitic bullying at a middle school and attempted to silence a 12-year-old student and his family from speaking out about it.

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The response came nearly a week after Westport father and filmmaker Andrew Goldberg penned a column about Coleytown Middle School in Newsweek titled: My Son Faced Antisemitism. His School Tried to Buy Our Silence.

“I can say without doubt or hesitation that the Newsweek article grossly mischaracterizes the response and actions of our school leadership,” Westport Board of Education Chair Lee Goldstein said in a statement shared with the Courant. “At a time of rising antisemitism in our country and when some leaders may hide behind jargon and policies, that is not what we are doing. We prohibit antisemitism and take action against it, including in this matter.”


Goldberg, however, said his son left Westport’s Coleytown Middle School and enrolled in a private Jewish school after he was subjected to targeted antisemitism from multiple students in the summer leading up to and the beginning of seventh grade.

In the column, Goldberg alleged that a student yelled “Shoot the Jew!” at his son while squirting him with a water gun.

Goldberg wrote that a different student encouraged his son to sign up for “Camp Auschwitz” which had “great showers.”

On another occasion, Goldberg said his son and the same student watched an episode of the adult satirical cartoon South Park in which a character dressed as Hitler says “We must exterminate the Jews!”

Goldberg alleged that this student repeated the line to his son “dozens and dozens of times” for weeks at school, even when his son asked the student to stop.

‘To gag families’?

Goldberg criticized the school’s investigation into these claims. Additionally, he said the “safety plan” school leaders put in place to protect his son was inadequate and failed to address antisemitism within the school’s environment.

Goldberg said his family ultimately rejected a settlement agreement with Westport Public Schools that would have offset a portion of his son’s tuition costs. The reason was a confidentiality clause that Goldberg said would have prohibited his son and the rest of his family from speaking about their experiences with antisemitism and bullying within the district.

In an interview with the Courant, Goldberg characterized the proposed settlement and its confidentiality terms as “taxpayer dollars used to gag families.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League called the alleged antisemitic harassment “absolutely disgusting” in a Tweet on Sunday.

“When a Jewish family concludes that public schools are no longer safe or in the best interests of their child, the last thing that should ever be on the table is silence,” Greenblatt said. “Our children deserve transparency, accountability & safety in the wake of these incidents – nothing less.”

‘Antisemitism is vile’

Goldstein said the district acted in accordance with current standards when responding to Goldberg’s case.

“In this matter involving antisemitic bullying among middle school children, our educators not only followed all applicable laws, policies, and procedures to put in place safety measures and appropriate discipline, they also worked respectfully and compassionately with all the families involved to try to reach acceptable solutions and address with sensitivity the interactions among the students,” Goldstein said.

“In partnership with ADL, Jewish clergy, and other experts, we will continue to engage with the community, combat antisemitism, and do all we can to prevent and respond to incidents when they occur,” she added. “I have great faith in the Westport Public Schools and broader community to learn from these challenges and come together to lead the way in the fight against antisemitism.”

Since the column’s publication, Westport Superintendent Thomas Scarice said in communications with the district that he has met with two local rabbis and the director of the Connecticut ADL to talk about ways to move forward. He said he plans to join them in a community conversation in January.

“Antisemitism is vile and is never tolerated in our schools,” Scarice wrote on Dec. 15. “When we receive reports of antisemitism, including those described in the article, we always respond and take action to keep our students safe and issue appropriate consequences, including discipline.

“While we do all we can to teach our students about the impact of their words and actions, incidents do occur. … We will continue to be vigilant in the face of antisemitism and all other forms of hate,” Scarice wrote. “Of course, there’s always more work to be done.”

Goldberg described Scarice as “a problematic actor.”

“He has, without board approval, without board knowledge, attempted to silence a 12-year-old child about their experience with antisemitism using money,” Goldberg said. “That is toxic. That is sick. It’s dangerous. It’s unethical.”

Scarice declined to comment on Goldberg’s statement directly.

Goldstein, in her statement on Tuesday, said that she was “made fully aware of the steps taken throughout this investigation and ultimate discipline.”

Robert Harrington, of the Westport Board of Education, said at a Dec. 14 meeting that due to legal reasons, in such cases, only the board chair is “made aware of any of these issues at any level of specificity.”

“We learn about these issues as individual board members at the same time as the members of the public,” Harrington said.

Fellow board member Dorie Hordon echoed Harrington’s comments.

“I think a lot of people in the public do think that we know everything that’s going on, and oftentimes we are in the dark just as well,” Hordon said.

Earlier in the meeting, Scarice addressed Goldberg’s Newsweek column and the numerous steps the district has taken to respond to bias incidents and foster a safe and inclusive learning environment.

“We are not able to control everything our students do and say, especially when a good deal of the conduct we deal with happens outside of school and online. We need help. We need help teaching our students,” Scarice said.

“We are not perfect. I am not perfect. No one in our system is perfect,” Scarice added. “We need help. We need help in joining us to explicitly teach our kids it’s never acceptable to say anything antisemitic, racist, or hate based. If they do, we do have a range of consequences which we employ. We work to teach, we work to restore. We need help as we try to stop this from happening.”

‘Failing to protect Jewish students’

Goldberg said the Board of Education response is “not surprising.”

“Instead of using this a teaching moment to heal our community, they’ve decided to attack me for their own political gain,” Goldberg said in an email to the Courant.

“How could we expect the same people who showed such brazen insensitivity in their handling of the bullying of an innocent 12-year-old boy, to take any responsibility now?” he said.

Westport mother Heather Turk said that Goldberg’s story is not an isolated incident. Before the Newsweek column came out, Turk said she had already planned to speak during the Board of Education’s public comment period about an antisemitic incident at her child’s elementary school.

“I’m happy to hear the superintendent say that he can do better, because I personally emailed and didn’t even get a response, which is incredibly disappointing,” Turk said at the board meeting. “We as parents know what happened and have not heard any response at all. I understand privacy, I get it, but there can be a statement to make everyone feel safe in their environment, and that was not done.”

Turk said that in the classroom, students are around “children who are hitting and using hate words and speech on a daily basis.”

Turk said that there needs to be more transparency in how the district will discipline students who engage in this type of behavior.

“We, as residents of Westport, need to know what the punishments are. I know it can’t be specific, but if there is X incident, then Y will happen, so that we can feel that the kids who have done the incidents are being punished or educated in very specific ways,” Turk said.

Turk said the district needs “more education, a clearer understanding of what consequences are, and more community spirit so that we all feel that we are included and safe.”

After going through her son’s experience, and hearing Turk’s comments, Goldberg’s wife, Leslie Derkash said Scarice’s words felt like “lip service.”

“I think it is important that the community know that you are failing to protect Jewish students. There must be an accounting of your behavior,” Derkash said to Scarice in public comments presented to the Board of Education. “You tried to buy our silence, and what you did is reprehensible and immoral. There must be an accounting of and a determination as to whether you are capable of creating an environment where our children will not be at risk in today’s social and political climate.”

Goldberg, who has relatives who died in the Holocaust and has interviewed survivors through his work as a filmmaker, said that he believes the children involved do not “understand the gravity” of such a deplorable chapter in human history that saw the murder of 6 million Jews.

“When somebody says something like that to my son, it doesn’t only hurt the son, it resonates through my whole family,” Goldberg said. “The kids that do these things don’t always know what they’re doing. … We expect the adults to come in and fix the situation.”

Goldberg said that the goal is not to vilify or unduly punish children, but to use these situations as an “opportunity for adults to find useful solutions.”

However, Goldberg said that he believes that the district’s leaders, including Westport’s superintendent, are not equipped to do that.

“Our leadership in Westport has neither the skills, expertise, training or moral clarity to address these issues properly,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said that he hopes his son’s story brings about systemic change and some form of reconciliation with Westport Public Schools. He added that he hopes this experience can be a teachable moment for other school systems.

Goldberg said that “no amount of money” could buy his family’s silence.

“Antisemitism is not an abstract idea. It isn’t just a series of words. If you don’t draw a line in the sand, it quickly becomes horrible violence,” Goldberg said. “Everyone must speak up against antisemitism … staying silent is simply not an option.”

‘Confidential student information’

Jon Bauer, a clinical professor of law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said the confidentiality terms Goldberg described in the column are not uncommon in settlement agreements. He said courts have ruled to uphold such agreements and, at other times, ruled against them.

However, Bauer said, just because they are not unusual does not mean they are not problematic.

Bauer said such broad confidentiality terms, in some cases, can harm the public interest, create First Amendment concerns, and result in other psychological consequences.

“It’s very difficult to expect someone who’s been through bullying or harassment or discrimination to not talk about it,” Bauer said.

Connecticut Association of Boards of Education Executive Director and General Counsel Patrice McCarthy said school districts must maintain confidentiality for other students who may have been involved in an incident.

“School districts have a responsibility to protect confidential student information, which might be the rationale for this language in a settlement agreement,” McCarthy said.

But Bauer said that in such cases, narrower confidentiality terms could achieve the same end.

“The agreement could have proposed that the settling parties agree not to discuss the identity of other students involved in the incident in a way that would still have left the child and the child’s family free to talk about the experiences that they went through,” Bauer said.