Borough educators discuss racism, bias

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By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer

A screenshot of a July 29 virtual forum between community members and Naugatuck schools officials. –ANDREAS YILMA

NAUGATUCK — School administrators acknowledged they see implicit bias and racism in Naugatuck Public Schools as they discussed the issue last week during a virtual forum.

“I think that unfortunately, biases are everywhere,” Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini said. “I’m certainly not going to be naive to the fact that Naugatuck public schools are no different than many other places.”

The July 29 forum, organized by resident DeWygee Williams and Naugatuck Youth Services, brought together borough educators, officials, youth and community members to discuss the issue of racism and implicit bias in schools. The forum followed a similar one earlier in July with Police Chief Steven Hunt. The forums are designed to open a dialogue in the community about social and racial injustice.

“We want our community to be comfortable addressing their concerns and bringing their suggestions to people in leadership positions. We want to give them the tools to assist in difficult conversations in a respectful, positive manner,” Williams said.

City Hill Middle School Principal Eileen Mezzo said she has also seen examples of racism and bias in schools.

“I wish I could say that I didn’t but I have seen racism and I have seen implicit bias at work,” Mezzo said. “We’ve had to let people go since I was at City Hill and had to initiate a process of nonrenewal for tenure.”

School officials, who didn’t discuss in detail what they’ve seen in the school system, said they are working to address the issue.

For the past few years, the district has partnered with a professor from Naugatuck Valley Community College to create training sessions on understanding structural racial positions, social cognition, implicit bias, micro aggressions and privilege.

“I interact with a lot of different folks from different boards of education and we are one of the few communities that have undertaken this extensive equity training,” Board of Education member Ethel Grant said.

Montini said the district’s interview process for staff members includes an open-ended question about implicit bias.

Mezzo said staff cannot have racist feelings and then connect with students of color and make them feel safe and comfortable.

“I think students pick up very quickly on implicit bias, even if something isn’t as explicit, they have a feeling. I think that we show that in our words, in our actions, in the expectations that we have and who gets the benefit of the doubt, if there is some kind of discipline problem, I think that is very evident, and I don’t think students can learn as they should,” she said.

School officials have developed a diversity group at City Hill for students to come together and speak to administrators and guidance counselors about issues they experience in school.

“We were able to build a safe space where the students who wanted to come together to speak about it had a safe place to come,” City Hill Assistant Principal Andrea Fonesca said.

Naugatuck High School social studies teacher Teresa Obedzinski added staff at the school started an equity alliance this year that is examining practices and identifying goals of anti-racist teaching.

Montini said it’s vital to be impartial in every aspect of education.

“I think equity has to become so natural,” Montini said. “Equity has to become apart of the fabric of your daily life where every time you’re looking at data or you’re evaluating a policy, you’re looking at it through the lens of equity.”