The West Hartford Board of Education voted Tuesday night to change the label of the holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October from ‘Columbus Day’ to ‘Indigenous Peoples Day.’
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford will still adhere to the Capital Region Education Council (CREC) calendar as recommended, but as of Oct. 14, 2019, the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day will instead be called ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’ on the West Hartford Public Schools calendar.
The Board of Education voted 5-2 – along party lines with the Democrats in favor and the Republicans against – to make the holiday name change as they voted to accept the calendar for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Five residents had spoken at the Board of Education meeting on Feb. 21, when the calendar was first presented, asking that the change be made, and in response to comments by several Board members that there had not been enough outcry from the public about changing the name of the holiday, input was requested.
Student representatives Grace Andrews and Maddy Pliskin created a petition through change.org, and shared it on Facebook as well. The petition received 660 signatures in favor of changing the name of the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day, Andrews and Pliskin reported to the Board, and the posting of the petition on the Facebook group “Neighbors and Friends in West Hartford” garnered more than 350 comments representing a variety of opinions.
Andrews said she started the petition and was passionate about seeing how it would unfold. She said that the response to the petition clearly shows that a large number of people in West Hartford want the change. “Changing the name really embodies what West Hartford Public Schools is about – teaching the truth and strong morals.”
“Grace and I took the liberty to engender public debate,” Pliskin told the Board. She said that when she posted the petition on Facebook, she carefully worded the introduction so as to not indicate her own opinion, and specifically said it was “not a platform for debate or rage,” and the resulting comments reflected a wide range of opinion.
Pliskin said she also asked students for their opinion. “There was a large consensus among students that they wanted the name of Columbus Day to be changed to Indigenous Peoples Day.” She said that it was terrible to put a “rapist and bigot” like Columbus in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr. and veterans by having a holiday named after him.
Board Chair Cheryl Greenberg said that in addition to the petition and Facebook input, the Board received 22 letters from members of the public. Of those, 17 people were “explicitly or implicitly in favor of making the change,” while five were either explicitly or implicitly opposed to it.
While the numbers weren’t overwhelming, Greenberg said, the proportion of those in favor of the change was overwhelming. There was strong language on both sides from those who spoke out, she said.
Republican Board member Mark Zydanowicz said he still did not feel that the push for changing the name of the holiday on the calendar had received overwhelming support, as compared to other town issues where hundreds have spoken up. “We get inundated by it. We just didn’t get it this time either,” he said.
“We want to correct the lies but our curriculum does do that,” said Zydanowicz, and students are taught about Native Americans. “We attack Christopher Columbus – why Christopher Columbus?” he said, adding why not also attack Thomas Jefferson or George Washington who all owned a large number of slaves. “Where does it stop?”
Zydanowiz said that if the holiday were to have its name changed, he would suggest a better name like “Discovery Day” or “Americas Day.” He said solutions should be discussed with local tribes.
Board member Dave Pauluk, a Democrat, said that in the past the Board has received lots of input from the public regarding major issues like the changing the Conard and Hall logos, the name of the new middle school (Bristow), eliminating a full week of February vacation, having school on Veterans Day, and renovation vs. rebuilding Charter Oak International Academy.“
“They’re very big issues … I just don’t know that this issue we’re discussing rises to the level of demanding an outcry,” said Pauluk. He said it’s more of an administrative issue.
Democratic Board member Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said she supported the holiday name change for a host of reasons. “It’s important for us to promote education in a way that is enlightening and accurate,” she said, and important that the calendar the Board approves be congruent with the work taking place in classrooms.
It’s important to “lead by example,” Thomas- Farquharson said, “standing for integrity and what is in the best interest of our children.”
“History is history and because the history was written the way it was doesn’t make it truthful,” said Board Vice Chair Carol Blanks, a Democrat.
“When you know better aren’t you supposed to do better?” Blanks said. “We know all the horrific things that Columbus did and yet we’re celebrating it, and it’s on our calendar.”
Greenberg said she believes it’s important “not to celebrate one group vs. another, but to celebrate different perspectives,” not losing sight of Columbus either.
Zydanowicz suggested that the district consider not even having the second Monday of October as a holiday, instead using it as a teaching opportunity like what now happens on Veterans Day. Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said that eliminating the school holiday would have ramifications with teacher contracts since that day is supposed to be a school holiday, and is part of the CREC regional calendar.
Moore said he would gather more information about eliminating the day off so the Board could consider it at a later date. Moore also noted that all of the “diamonds” surrounding dates in June on the adopted calendar indicate that when the district makes up snow days it’s done in June, not by eliminating part of April vacation.
Four residents spoke during the public communication period at the beginning of the Board meeting, all voicing support for changing the holiday name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
“I do care that we teach history accurately now,” said Suzanne Sayers, adding that a day should not be held aside for celebrating Columbus who was a slave trader, rapist, and murderer.
Tracey Wilson, a former social studies teacher at Conard who is also town historian, said it’s important to “help our students distinguish between nostalgia and history.” Today’s world is different than it was when Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1892 and when the day became a national holiday in 1934, she said.
“This story has to be based on evidence that is accurate,” Wilson said. “It is clear that Columbus’ actions changed the world,” she said, but it’s a more complicated story and renaming the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day can help tell it.
The change was unanimously supported by the West Hartford Human Rights Commission, Co-Chair Barry Walters told the Board.
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