Letter To The Editor: Civil Rights Groups Call For Transparency Investigating Racist Incident

Photo: Recent protest in Cushing Square (Credit: COS New England Facebook page)

Dear Belmont Police Department, Belmont Public Schools, and the larger Belmont community:

We are writing to express our disgust with the hate filled and racist graffiti found on the Wellington School Building this past Monday. This is unacceptable. We stand, in solidarity, with our Belmont and Boston students and families of color.

We must not and will not tolerate racism in any form or manner. The severity of the incident should be acknowledged and there should be follow through with students and families, alike.

We thank Belmont Superintendent John Phelan for bringing this to our attention as quickly as he did and we thank Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac for keeping the community informed of the ongoing investigation.  

We ask that the investigation of this hateful incident be swift, thorough, and transparent. We ask that any conversations with students, particularly of color, regarding this incident be thoughtful and transparent. We are here to be a support for our Belmont and Boston students, families, and educators. This is a community issue which is why we are asking for transparency.

For our students and community to heal, you all must be incredibly thoughtful in the manner in which the investigation is handled and how the information is disseminated. We would like to be included, along with community members, in the communications to students and families. We would like to receive updates on the investigation. 

The common theme is transparency.

ALL of our children should feel safe and welcomed in their environment. This incident proves that there are individuals in the Belmont community who continue to try and foster a climate of fear and intimidation. We, as a community, need to be vigilant in our fight against racism. Belmont schools are part of a greater community and we should all be informed when incidents like this happen. If it affects one, it affects all.

We look forward to receiving updates and working closely with you all.

In solidarity,

Community Organized for Solidarity (COS)

Black and Brown Families in Belmont (BBF)

Belmont Pan-Asian Coalition (BPAC) 

Belmont Antiracism Discussion Group (BADG) 

Witness IDs Teen/Preteen As Writer of Racist Graffiti At Wellington

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School

A resident told Belmont Police he witnessed a young man between 11 and 13 years old tagging a wall of the Wellington Elementary School where racist graffiti was discovered a few days later.

According to a statement by Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac released on Friday, April 2, an adult told police that on Saturday, March 28 at approximately 7 p.m., they observed the young man writing on the wall of the school. The witness asked the youth if he was responsible for graffiti on the wall near the flag pole.

Two days later, on March 30 at 4 p.m., Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan notified the Belmont Police that students discovered the graffiti that contained the words, “Math is F…ing (illegible) my ‘N-word’.”

At this time, the Belmont Police believe this youth was the one responsible forpage1image22307072

“The Belmont Public Schools and the Belmont Police emphasize that whether these words were written with malicious intent or out of ignorance, we are taking this incident very seriously and it is an act that must be strongly condemned. There is no place for hate or racism in Belmont,” said MacIsaac.

At this time, the Belmont Police Department is continuing its investigation.

The Belmont School Department has notified all families of this incident and is working with its Wellington team to discuss this incident with students in an age-appropriate manner.

McIsaac added that residents who have concerns or feel targeted by hate or racism may contact the Belmont Police or the Belmont Human Rights Commission at 617-993-2795 or email at Belmont.hrc@gmail.com.

Racist, ‘Painful’ Grafitti Found At Wellington Elementary

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School

Graffiti described as “racist, devaluing, painful to read, and unacceptable” was discovered on the face of the Roger Wellington Elementary School on Monday, March 29.

Belmont Superintendent John Phelan made the “deeply upsetting” announcement in a late-night letter to the community, noting that “several inappropriate terms” were written on the school’s exterior, one being racist.

Phelan said his office immediately contacted the Belmont Police who are investigating the incident.

“The Belmont Public Schools stands in solidarity with and in full support of our Black and brown families,” said Phelan.

The graffiti was discovered by fourth graders who told Wellington Principal Heidi Paisner-Roffman as part of the school’s “seeing something and saying something” policy.

“It is extremely important to mark these moments of racism in our community,” said Phelan in his message. “Our grade 4 students had the integrity to mark this moment by telling their principal; we as school and community members must also call out this action as hurtful and unacceptable.”

Phelan said Principal Paisner-Roffman will be working with her staff to talk with all Wellington students in the coming days about this issue in an age-appropriate manner. She will also be reaching out the families of the students who found the graffiti to inform them.

Hateful graffiti is not a new phenomenon in Belmont. On July 4, 2008, racist notes were found at the Wellington playground while homophobic and racist comments were discovered in a Chenery Middle School bathroom in November 2018.

After such an incident, Phelan said the schools “are grateful for our growing relationships with community partners who share our values of zero tolerance for racist behavior” including Community Organized for Solidarity, Belmont Against Racism, and the Belmont Human Rights Commission.

“[They] are doing excellent work educating our community and calling attention to important issues, and we are appreciative of their advice and partnership,” said Phelan.

“We look forward to continuing this important conversation about race, respect, and what it means to live in a community with one another. Please reach out to me or to any of our Principals with your thoughts as we work toward becoming a more anti-racist and inclusive community.”

Responding To An Incident Of Hate At The Chenery

Photo: One of the responses made by a student after racist and homophobic graffiti was discovered at the Chenery Middle School.

On the week before Thanksgiving, a bathroom at Chenery Middle School was tagged with racist and homophobic graffiti in an unprecedented attack of hate speech at the school. In response to the act, Chenery Principal Micheal McAllister conducted a school-wide activity to explain what happened and what students can do to begin the healing process. Below is a question and answer with McAllister before the School Committee meeting on Nov. 27.

Q: In your email to parents after the attack, you said you were “stunned” that such an incident took place in Belmont? After two weeks of reflection and knowing that such incidents are happening every day around the country, do you remained as shocked as when first discovered the graffiti?  

Yes, I do. I have been here for 20 years and to my knowledge, an attack like this has never happened. I’m not that naive that it has never happened, it just never happened quite on that scale. It was really blatant done with a big thick marker right on the wall and the mirror. Now every middle school in the US has the f-word on the wall or someone says an unkind thing to another student, no one is immune to that. But this was on another, disturbing level. 

Chenery Principal Mike McAllister.

Q: Was this incident an example of ingrained racism and homophobia, or was this attention seeking by an immature young teen?

It’s hard to know what the motivation was because there wasn’t a lot of context for it. I have two thoughts on what occurred; that someone was being provocative and writing words they didn’t fully understand and that’s my hope. Or there was real animous to certain students in our school. But it doesn’t necessarily matter what the intent was at some level, it’s more on what the impact is on everyone else. Now that this is out and happened to people, the goal becomes how do you address it.

Where did you turn for guidance to respond to this incident of hate at the Chenery?

Unfortunately, every school is dealing with this, so there were a lot of examples of how schools are approaching the problem. Based on my school committee work in Bedford, Superintendent Jonathan Sills introduced me to the concept of Not in Our Town. It’s based on the Billings’ [Montana] example where the community came together after an act of antisemitism occurred. It’s a school program that says whether you go public or not, you’re making a statement. You’re either tacitly accepting it by remaining quiet or you’re getting out in front of it by saying “Not In Our Town.”

So I think I learned a lot from Superintendent Sills example but I also counseled with friends I have, with certainly my teachers, my assistant principals, and our superintendent [John Phelan]. I never had anyone say, ‘I don’t think you should go public, I don’t think this is a good idea, maybe we should keep this quiet.’

Q. What happened at the Chenery on the day before the Thanksgiving break?

The school has an extended homeroom which is 17 minutes long and on half days we have what we call team days. We asked teachers to set aside for a minimum of the 17 minutes for our response but most teachers gave us almost their entire day. First, we informed students what had happened. Their parents knew of the incident two days earlier so a lot of the children knew. We talked about how we are not the only town dealing with it. We walked them through four different towns in the last week alone that had an incident like ours. We talked about how they felt when they heard about it but also how the targets of this act may have felt and what’s the right way and wrong way to react; what’s helpful and what’s destructive. Finally the concept of Not In Our Town/Not In Our School. We showed them a five-minute clip from Billings about a community not unlike Belmont where something happens to one person and rather just saying, ‘Oh, that’s their problem,’ the entire community stands up and does something.

It wasn’t anything dramatic but it was just a statement that there’s something every one of us can do. And if 1,400 of us in this school does something, that’s better than just one person dealing with the incident.

The most visible activity was student’s writing on squares of construction paper their reaction to the incident.

We gave the students three prompts to write about; how did you feel, the second was what did you want the victims of this to hear, and third, what you want to say to the person who did this. Some kids responded to every prompt, some to one and some just said “I just want to ask ‘why?” Some said the person who did this must have their own problems, and maybe they need some help and our support.

In your email and in the activity, while there is a need for discipline, there is also restorative justice.

There are two types of justice; retributive and restorative. Retributive is the traditional “You did this, now stay after school for detention.” And there is a purpose for that. But there is also a piece of us that says, “When you break it, you have to fix it.” And that requires acknowledging that there’s someone on the other side of what you did. So in this age of smartphones, you might think that you’re only shooting a text message into cyberspace, but on the other side of the screen is a person who receives that. And we have a responsibility to that person. And it’s really easy to forget that for both kids and adults if you look at the trash that’s posted online today.

So we were trying to say on Wednesday was we have a responsibility to each other. Sometimes we make mistakes. We talk with kids a lot about intent versus impact, that sometimes the intent of what you wrote wasn’t clear but the impact was. Intent doesn’t undermine impact. So whether or not you intended to hurt someone, all that matters is that you hurt someone. And now we all have that responsibility to fix it. So that is what we are talking with kids all the time.

I would like to think that someone who wrote that was in school on Wednesday and they wrote something caring. So it was their opportunity to be restorative themselves, in addition, with the help from 1,400 other kids.

Q: What happened that Wednesday was a short-term, a one-day response. What is the long-term solution?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one thing a school can do. The best example to look at is Reading High School which has been dealing with this for a year and a half, especially in the past eight weeks.

For the educators at the Chenery, it’s the continuation of the work that we have been doing. We’ve been talking about culturally proficient teaching that welcomes all cultures into a school. What do we as teachers need to do in order to create an atmosphere where kids don’t leave part of themselves at the school’s front door? So that’s work that has been on-g0ing.

We introduced two tools at the beginning of the school year, the first is called “marking the moment” which is when something provocative or racially charged just happened, you must stop class and address that. It’s no longer acceptable to say to the child ‘be nice because we have algebra to do.’ But sometimes we fail to mark the moment so the second way is the concept called circling back. We can always say to students, “Hey, you said something the other day and it stuck with me and I want to have a chance to talk to you about that.” Because when we don’t say anything, we are still making a statement. 

I don’t think that two years ago I don’t know if we would have responded like this nor would we have teachers who would have felt confident enough to respond like this. So I think on some level we’ve been preparing for this. But the work continues. Every single day there is a mark the moment event.

Vigilance is the answer. Sometimes when you make it public, it actually makes it worse. That doesn’t mean its the wrong thing to do. Sometimes it becomes this game of cat and mouse or copycat. But the goal of going public is more than solely to stop the act of hate. It’s also to let other people know that you’re not going to sit back and let it happen. So it’s worth the risk. It’s just a drag that its happening everywhere.