Wilton High School does not offer an AP Hate class, or even Creative Hate Speech Writing. But someone in the school has found a way to disseminate racist and anti-Semitic language, all the same.
Late last week I heard about a Twitter account under the name @YouLiveInWilton, whose screen name is “Wilton Life.” All the tweets are written as if they describe what life in Wilton is like.
Sadly, here’s one of the recent tweets from that account:
“F*ck Darien. Since they don't allow Jews to live in their town, they dump them on our land!”
Lest you think Jews were the only targets, read the tweet that immediately preceded that one:
#IWillNeverUnderstandWhy people think we're racist? We love black people... Everyone should own one.
There were several other tweets, many of them just as racist and anti-Semitic. Others were simply ‘snarky’ and obnoxious, still others just spoiled and bratty. All of them came off as pretty ignorant.
Based on tweet content and reaction from Wilton Public Schools administrators, it’s widely believed that the tweets are from a high school student. Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards confirmed that the district is investigating the Twitter account and is working with the Wilton Police Department as well as the CT State’s Attorney’s office.
This all makes me nauseous.
As a Jew, as a parent with children in Wilton schools, and as a human being, I know that it happens, but still—it caught me off guard and it fills me with such sadness.
As a Wilton resident—I hope I won’t be disappointed.
What I mean by that is: I hope I won’t be disappointed at the reaction I would like to see in response.
Over the weekend I spoke with Gary Jones, the CT Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL has been in existence for 99 years, and according to Jones, its mission has always been the same: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” In other words, you have to stand with anyone victimized by hate.
I wanted to get some context for this kind of hate, and how a community should handle this when it happens. Jones is staying in touch with Dr. Richards about the hate tweets. Given the ADL’s experience in helping communities deal with instances like this one, he explained what steps Wilton can start to take.
“An important component of this is for the school community to have its school leadership inform them of what happened, what responses they’re taking, and to make it clear that the haters don’t speak for our community,” said Jones. “It sends a message, especially to the kids, it assures them for their perspective of what is right and what is wrong is shared by the administration and by the leaders of the school community.”
Our times are definitely more complicated. Things that happen off school grounds are—by common sense and now, by state anti-bullying law—intricately intertwined with school life and the security of its students. Even if the twitter hate wasn’t composed on a school computer, it’s still something the school has to get involved with.
But is it only the school’s responsibility to take on this ugliness? Is it just the school that needs to distinguish between hate speech and the freedom to speak it?
Jones explained, “First and foremost, it is the role of the administration and the superintendent and the town leadership. Just because you can’t criminally prosecute it for speech, doesn’t mean it’s right. And the distinction between right and wrong is something parents teach kids, and something that our leaders teach kids. And our leaders stand forward to say, this is not going to be tolerated, and this is not appropriate in the school community or in any community.”
Ah! In other words, it’s something we as a wider community—not just those involved with the schools, but all of Wilton needs to realize is going on, and needs to stand up against this kind of hate here.
“One of the things that haters like to do is to make the people who are their targets feel small and alone. That’s a very powerful weapon they have if they are successful. But there’s an equally powerful weapon that the good people in the community have, and that is to stand with the people who are the victims, and make it clear that the victims are not isolated and alone, they have the support of the entire community. Rather, it’s the haters and the bigots who are isolated and alone and who have no support,” agreed Jones.
Dr. Richards addressed the incident in his report to the Board of Education at their meeting last Thursday, June 14. In his remarks (attached to this article), he stressed how, as educators and parents, those in the schools work hard to teach young people how to make appropriate choices.
“It is my hope that we can send a clear, unequivocal and united message that this kind of behavior does not represent our community and that it will not be tolerated.”
It’s a good start. But more needs to be done. There needs to be a more active education plan to directly address the dangers and effects this kind of hate speech has; to teach about how being a bystander is just as damaging to the collective nature of our community as it is to individual victims; and to demonstrate how the community can come together to stand up and reject this kind of speech as representative of life in Wilton.
This needs to happen actively in the schools. It needs to happen with our town leadership. It needs to happen in our homes, in conversations Wilton parents have with their children.
Jones explained, “One of the things we try to make people understand is that a school or a community is not judged by virtue of the bad acts of one or a small number of people; it’s judged by the response. That is always the key in these situations—it’s the community rising up, the leadership rising up and saying, this is not appropriate, we’re not going to stand for it and we’re going to make sure that people in our community understand that wilton is not a place that will condone this kind of hate speech.”
You know, this is not the first time this kind of hate has hit Wilton and its high school. But even more interesting? Our community did join together, just as Jones described, in defiance of the hate.
Back in 2004, some lockers at Wilton high school were defaced with racist and homophobic slurs. The Wilton Library brought together representatives from the high school, local religious congregations, town government and youth organizations to craft a proactive response, which they dubbed “Operation Respect.” Hundreds of residents participated and the community linked together to say, “Hate has no place here!”
As I learned from my talk with the ADL’s Jones, ignoring the hate won’t make it go away, and it’s not enough just to try and fight it when hate comes knocking. Education is what’s going to make hate unwelcome here, and it’s education that has to come from parents, teachers and school administrators, town leaders, community organizations, business people, residents of all stripes and walks of life.
“If we believe, as we do, that people have to be taught to hate, we also believe that people can be taught to be respectful and friendly, to appreciate differences, and most importantly—to stand up for people who are being victimized by any kind of hate or bullying,” Jones said.
We all need to keep spreading that message, supporting one another and teaching one another why it’s important to stand up and say we won’t stand for this bigotry to represent what Wilton is.
So it’s up to you. And you. And you. And you. And me. It’s up to all of us to say to @YouLiveInWilton:
“While you may call yourself ‘Wilton Life’ on Twitter, I’m sorry but you are not what Wilton Life is all about, and you are not welcome here.”