Darien High students blast hate incidents, say they should ‘be able to escape hatred’ while at school

Darien High School in Darien, Conn., on Nov. 7, 2014.

Darien High School in Darien, Conn., on Nov. 7, 2014.

File / Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Concerned students, parents and residents shared their experiences of facing discrimination at Darien High School and called on the town to take a stronger position against incidents of hate during a school board meeting last week.

Several students spoke to Board of Education members during an Oct. 12 meeting about how recent racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic incidents at DHS have made them feel marginalized. Students also largely criticized school officials and parents for enabling a longstanding culture of harassment.

Maggie Ramsay, a senior at Darien High School and part of the LGBTQ+ community, told the board that she had experienced several instances of verbal abuse. A member of the honor society and a scholar athlete, Ramsay said she is a highly involved student and sees the need for improvements in the school’s culture.

Ramsay came out as bisexual last year and “in many ways, it has been the worst year of my life,” she told school board members. In one instance, she said a group of male students called her several slurs, then hurled a can at her head and splashed a drink in her face.

At a social event, she said, another Darien student yelled, “What is the lesbian doing here?” The group of friends she was with did not immediately come to her defense, Ramsay said.

“Of course, not everyone at DHS is hateful,” she said. “But there is a culture where the people who are not hateful are too scared to stand up for what is right.”

In September, reports surfaced of an anti-Semitic comment posted to social media and graffiti found in a boys’ bathroom at DHS that objectified women and threatened those who identify as gay.

School officials condemned the incidents in a statement, saying they “do not represent the values of our student body, school district or town, and the message for those involved remains unequivocal; there is no place for sentiments of hate, bigotry, anti-Semitism, or religious discrimination of any kind in our schools or community.”

The school said it is conducting an investigation into the incident.

During the school board meeting, DHS student Giselle Winegar criticized officials for sugarcoating conversations around the discriminatory incidents. Parents and school officials must have “open and honest conversations” that bluntly address incidents of hate, Winegar said.

“The recent video released by the administration addressing the situation in the boys’ bathroom had a light tone that many students felt did not address the severity of the situation,” Winegar said.

Ramsay and Winegar spoke during the public comment section of the Board of Education, in which members do not respond to the statements.

Livie Punishill, another DHS student, also criticized the school for a perceived double standard around punishment for discriminatory behavior.

“Both in the past and currently, discriminatory words and actions have been met with minimal punishment such as a one- or two-day in-school suspensions or removal from a singular football game,” Punishill said. “I’ve seen students be punished more severely for acts of plagiarism and vaping on campus.”

Kyla Johns, a Black and Native American DHS alum who graduated several years ago, said she witnessed similar incidents when she was a student.

During her time in Darien schools, Johns said she had objects thrown at her in the hallways and experienced verbal bullying. Changing the culture begins with changing the curriculum that students are taught, she said.

“We as a community sit here and discuss acts of hate and how they could occur at the high school when the answer is right in front of us,” Johns said. “Because they haven’t been taught a compassionate and inclusive accurate history.”

It was not surprising to hear about the bathroom graffiti and the firsthand accounts from minority students who have reported bullying and hate incidents, Ramsay said.

“This is exactly what we are allowing to form in our schools. ... I’m asking you to please hear us out and give us hope back,” Ramsay said. “School is a place where you are supposed to be able to escape hatred and not have to worry about being hate-crimed when you’re just trying to learn.”