West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vicinus said in a message to families that the use of a racial slur by a teacher is being taken very seriously. [This story was updated on Sept. 8, 2023]
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Paul Vicinus said that a complaint regarding the use of a racial slur by a teacher at one of the town’s schools is being taken very seriously, and on Thursday, after addressing the school community, he sent a message via email to the entire West Hartford Public Schools community about the incident and said the teacher has been removed from the classroom.
“The district has received a complaint that a racial slur was used by an adult in a classroom in the presence of students,” Vicinus said in his message. “I want to make it unequivocally clear that derogatory language, racial slurs, and hate speech have no place in our schools and work against our mission to develop a sense of community and belonging.”
Che’La’Mora Hardy is a Sedgwick parent, and she told We-Ha.com in an interview Thursday afternoon that she contacted the administration after her eighth-grade son, who is Black, came home from school last Friday and told her about the incident.
It was the third day of school, and Hardy said her son’s math teacher was going over class rules with a PowerPoint, including the use of inappropriate language.
Hardy said her son told her that he asked the teacher for more information about what she meant. “He asked, ‘What words are those?'” Hardy said. The teacher, Hardy said, responded to her son: “You know what I’m talking about. You guys use this term all the time.” Her son told her the teacher used the “N-word” twice as an example, once with the “-er” ending and once with the “-a” ending.
The incident occurred during a double period at the beginning of the school day, and when her son got off the bus at 3:45 p.m. he came home he immediately told her about it, Hardy said. “He said, ‘I don’t understand why she said that to me,'” Hardy said.
The teacher “racially profiled my son. That was racially motivated,” Hardy said. She said he was still upset about it when he got home.
It was her son’s third day at Sedgwick, Hardy said, and he hasn’t yet made any connections at the school and didn’t call her during the day to tell her because he didn’t have his phone in class.
In his message to the West Hartford Public Schools community Thursday morning, Vicinus said the report is being taken very seriously, and stated that the district “acted immediately in removing the teacher from the classroom. We are conducting a thorough investigation while simultaneously taking all appropriate steps to ensure the safety of our students and providing all necessary supports. Pending the outcome of the investigation, we will take appropriate action, and while we will not prejudge the outcome, the serious nature of this incident may merit suspension and/or termination.”
Vicinus confirmed that Sedgwick Principal Juan Melián has also told the school community that the complaint is being thoroughly investigated, and that there “is not space for vulgar language or hate speech in our school.”
In a conversation with We-Ha.com, Vicinus said, “We take this statement that was allegedly made by an adult in our building very seriously. There is just no place for it.”
Vicinus also told We-Ha.com that he and others in the superintendent’s office, as well as the principal and members of the administration, have had conversations with the parent who was told by her son that a teacher used the “N-word” multiple times in the classroom, as well as the parents of the other students in the class. [Vicinus did not name Hardy in his conversation with We-Ha.com, nor did he provide the name of the teacher.]
Hardy said she has spoken to Vicinus and other administrators, but said it appears that “they’re trying to cover all their tracks.”
Hardy said she has also requested that her son be switched to a different class, but has not yet been advised when or if that will be happening. While the teacher has been removed from that particular classroom, she said she doesn’t know how long that will be the case. She knew the teacher would not be in the class on Tuesday but didn’t know what was going to happen Wednesday morning. She said she told her son to call her immediately if the teacher was in the class or even in the building.
Hardy said her son told her that on Wednesday, Sept. 6, the substitute teacher referenced the original teacher, and she said it’s hard for her son to go to school each morning not knowing if the teacher will be back.
Vicinus said the district is concerned for all who were impacted by the incident.
“The school administration is in communication with all of the families in the classroom in which this incident supposedly took place,” Vicinus said.
Those conversations with families will continue, and Vicinus said that Melián will be sharing further communication shortly with more specific information about how families will be supported going forward.
Late Thursday afternoon, Melián emailed all Sedgwick Middle School families confirming that the incident had been reported and reiterating that “every step necessary” will be taken to support the individuals who were directly affected as well as the school community as a whole.
“It is important for me, as a Principal at Sedgwick and also as an individual, to share with you my deep concern and my complete commitment to do everything necessary to support the students within our community. At Sedgwick, we believe that there is no place for racism in our school,” Melián’s Sept. 7 email states.
“Our immediate steps have been to work closely with the students and families of those affected, making sure that they know that we are deeply committed to being responsive to their concerns and needs. We have reached out to each student and each family not just to gather the necessary information, but also to provide an opportunity for them to express their feelings,” Melián wrote in his message Thursday afternoon. “I also know that, at the end of the day, this affects all of us. My goal is to make sure that we provide you with everything you need as we take steps. Today, we gathered to give an update of the situation to our staff and we reiterated our shared values and our goal of a safe and welcoming community for all.”
“WHPS is a district that prides itself on our ability to foster school environments that are inclusive and equity-driven. Incidents such as these remind us of the importance of our collective work to create safe and welcoming spaces for all,” Vicinus wrote in his statement on Thursday morning.
Melián’s message later in the day also noted that there is important work ahead.
At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, shortly after news of the complaint had first been made public, Chairperson Lorna Thomas-Farquharson read the following statement:
“The Board has been made aware of an allegation of a racial slur uttered in the presence of students,” Thomas-Farquharson said. “We would like the community to know that the Board of Education and the district administration take these matters seriously and remain committed to our vision to value and honor all in our community. The district administration is investigating thoroughly. I want to express that although we have done extensive training to create school environments that are inclusive and equity driven, we know that our work is never done. The defining factor for our district and our community lies within how we respond – how we come together to ensure our students feel safe, valued, and seen for who they are.”
While the opening of schools for the 2023-2024 year was otherwise very positive, this incident has “cast an ugly shadow,” Vicinus said in his email to families.
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