Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice provides this update on allegations of antisemitism and racism at last Friday’s Staples High School football game, at Cheshire High:
As the community is aware, there were allegations made on social media Friday evening including: antisemitic and racist comments made in the stands, the presence of a Confederate flag, and the waving of an Israeli flag. Since that time, the voices of individual students throughout this investigation have given us a clearer picture of events and a constructive plan to move forward.
School administrators and law enforcement from both Cheshire and Westport immediately commenced investigations. From the outset the Anti-Defamation League, through Connecticut Regional Director Steve Ginsburg, offered and provided their support to both communities.
Over the past 5 days the town’s respective athletic directors, high school principals, first selectmen and police chiefs communicated directly with each other. I have spoken to the Cheshire Superintendent nearly every day since Friday.
The Cheshire Public Schools administration and police departments have shared their findings with our administration as a result of their interviews with eyewitnesses, including the 2 students who brought the Israeli flag to the game. Seven Staples cheer team students were interviewed by Staples principal Stafford Thomas, as well as a student of color who was the recipient of disgusting racial slurs via social media.
Along with Chief Foti Koskinas, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Steve Ginsburg, I had the opportunity to meet with Westport area rabbis and Jewish communal leaders on Monday, as well as a group of Westport community Black leaders yesterday. This proved to be critically important, as Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue followed up by speaking directly to Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Scolnic of Temple Beth Shalom in Hamden, who knows the students who brought and waved the Israeli flag.
Finally, the time between last Friday night and today provided Westport community members the opportunity to share any eyewitness accounts, as well as their thoughts and concerns.
From the beginning, the Westport Public Schools fully committed to finishing our investigation by speaking with every student or community member personally impacted by these events. The process was thorough and comprehensive. I am confident that we have clarity on what happened Friday night, as well as a constructive plan to move forward.
An Israeli flag was waved throughout much of the game Friday night by 2 Cheshire students, particularly when Cheshire scored or Staples committed a penalty. After halftime, members of our cheer team approached the Cheshire Police to ask that the Israeli flag be taken down. Although the Cheshire Police and administration confirm they directed the students to take the flag down, there are Staples student reports of the flag waving later in the game.
After the game the social media account, “Wreckers SuperFans,” and the Staples cheer team, posted an image on Instagram of the Israeli flag waving in the Cheshire student section with a message about anti-Semitic and racist remarks and insulting chants throughout the game, as well as the waving of the Confederate flag.
Both school administrations confirmed that chants of “Daddy’s money” were directed at Staples students and players. This was not done in unison with the waving of the Israeli flag. Racist or antisemitic chants were not corroborated. There is no corroboration of the presence or sighting of a Confederate flag.
The Staples and Cheshire “SuperFans” respectfully communicated late Friday evening through social media, and the “Wreckers SuperFans” took down the post following that discussion. The cheer team post was taken down following a communication with the Staples cheer coach.
Saturday morning, a Staples student of color who was not at the game posted a comment on a friend’s Instagram responding to the earlier post about the game. He posted, “The audacity.” What transpired in response was a series of horrific and unspeakable racial slurs directed towards this Staples student. The source of the slurs was an untraceable “burner” account, which is a social media account used to post anonymously to avoid having posts traced. This is most disturbing, and we offered to provide support for this student.
In the investigation, the Cheshire administration shared that the 2 students who waved the Israeli flag are Jewish. and that they brought the flag to the game because it was a school spirit “Red, White & Blue Nite” in the student section. In response to doubts about this claim, in my meeting with the Westport area rabbis and Jewish communal leaders on Monday, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue offered to speak directly to the Rabbi of Temple Beth David in Cheshire to offer his services in resolving this matter.
Rabbi Wiederhorn was referred to Temple Beth Shalom in Hamden, where the 2 boys worship, and spoke directly to Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Scolnic. Rabbi Scolnic shared that he has known the boys their entire lives, that he knows them very well, that they are not mean-spirited, and that they are very proud Jews. Rabbi Scolnic is completely confident that there was no malice or antisemitism intended, and that unfortunately these accusations have mischaracterized the 2 boys.
Based on feedback from the Cheshire administration, the Cheshire police department, the Westport area rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, Rabbi Scolnic, and our partners with the ADL, I have no reason to question these conclusions.
High school sporting events can be raucous and intense. The school spirit from these events can be palpable. However, for visiting teams, these types of events can be intimidating. Traditionally in high school sports, the goal of the fan section is to vigorously cheer for the home team, while at times taunting and making the visiting team uncomfortable.
Some members of our community have questioned the intent of the waving of the Israeli flag. In fairness, our Staples athletes and fans have experienced antisemitism at athletic events in the past. Westport has a considerable Jewish community, and approximately one-third of the cheer team is Jewish.
The waving of the Israeli flag at a high school sporting event played against a town with a considerable Jewish population is peculiar. It is not necessarily right or wrong, but in my 25+ years in education, I have never witnessed the Israeli flag, or any other national flag except the U.S. flag, waved at a high school sports event.
The series of events, the history of antisemitism directed towards our students, the peculiarity of the waving of the Israeli flag at a football game, along with the intensity of the night, contributed to a considerable sense of threat on the part of Staples students. It is critically important to affirm the impact of the night on our students and to support them as we constructively move forward, and to meaningfully learn from these events.
Again, I have no reason to question the conclusions of the Cheshire administration, the Cheshire police department, the Westport area rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, Rabbi Scolnic of Temple Beth Shalom, and our partners with the ADL.
However, it is important to note again that heinous, racist, untraceable messages were indeed sent through social media to a Staples student of color in the aftermath of this game. These messages have been turned over to the police, and we will continue to offer support to this student.
In discussions with Cheshire Superintendent Dr. Jeff Solan, and with valuable feedback from the Staples cheer team parents and Connecticut Regional Director of the ADL Steve Ginsburg, Dr. Solan and I will offer an invitation to the Cheshire and Staples students involved to convene, facilitated by the ADL, so that amends can be made and appropriate closure can be provided to both groups of students. In dealing with young adults, there are opportunities for learning experiences in events such as these.
Finally, we invite all of the students involved to participate together in the “Walk Against Hate” on October 10 in Hartford.
The administration is committed to encouraging and supporting students who come forward with concerns about how they, or others, are treated. Going forward, the district will clarify the reporting process for students with concerns at athletic events and extracurricular activities.
Again, it is critical that the community understands the level of transparency and thoroughness that we have taken to address this matter. We remain committed to fighting antisemitism and racism in any form.