Tag Archives: Connecticut Anti-Defamation League

ADL Helps Make Staples A Safer, Braver Place

Everyone knows about “safe spaces”: the rooms in a school or college where students can discuss issues openly, free from epithets, putdowns or other attacks.

That’s important, of course. A new program at Staples High School aims to provide a special place to connect, feel comfortable and grow.

But “Connections” — the innovative, twice-weekly project that will keep small groups of students connected with staff members throughout their 4 years on campus — hopes to go one step further.

The goal is to create “brave spaces.” That’s where teenagers and teachers can do more than discuss bias incidents like swastikas or hurtful comments.

It’s where they can think critically about them, learn from them — and learn how to talk about them, openly and honestly and directly.

“Connections” helps students reflect on what it means to be a community member making a difference. It was in the works before Stafford Thomas was named principal, but he has embraced the concept and put the full weight of his position behind it.

Educators — even at Staples — have not always been trained in how to lead discussions of bias and hate. They may feel uncomfortable, and worry that students may feel uncomfortable too.

Marji Lipshez-Shapiro knows those feelings well. “It takes a lot for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with what can be too uncomfortable,” says the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter.

She’s spent nearly 30 years running professional development workshops for teachers, through the ADL. For “Connections,” she designed a special one — much more targeted to the program, to Westport as a community, and to Staples as a school.

“Every school has bias incidents,” she notes. “Too often the district doesn’t want anyone to hear about them. They sweep them under the rug, and they become ‘lumpy carpets.'”

Swastikas and other symbols pop up in bathroom stalls. Racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made in hallways, cafeterias and before class.

The ADL program used case studies: actual examples from schools nationwide. They could happen here too.

“We want educators to have tools, to be proactive and reactive,” Lipshez-Shapiro says. “The ‘Connections’ discussions are about prevention and intervention. When there is an incident, we want everyone to learn from it. After all, this is school!”

Lauren Francese — the Westport Public Schools’ 6-12 social studies coordinator, who helped design the workshop — says that it will help all teachers talk about challenging topics, in the classroom as well as during “Connections.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg (a Westport resident) and Marji Lipshez-Shapiro (3rd from right) join Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas (far right) for “brave spaces” training.

Lipshez-Shapiro agrees. What happens, she asks rhetorically, when a teacher overhears a boy tell a friend he’d take a girl to the prom “only if she puts a paper bag on her head”?

“When do you challenge that statement? When do you not say anything?” she says. “Silence is what does harm. But lots of people are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or coming down too hard.”

The ADL workshop gave teachers tools to begin nuanced conversations. That way, Lifshez-Shapiro says, they can help students “not just stand up, be brave and say ‘Don’t say that,’ but go beyond.”

In the Staples session, she asked educators to think about their own favorite teachers. What qualities did they have?

And when they were in school themselves, she continued, how did you feel like you belonged? How did you feel when you did not belong?

She also asked teachers to share their own best practices. “These are gifted professionals,” she notes. “They’re already doing excellent things.”

“Every high school needs to do this,” Lipshez-Shapiro says.

Thomas — the new principal — agrees.

He calls the training “timely and especially helpful in preparing our teachers and ultimately our students in navigating brave conversations in a responsible and, most importantly, productive manner.

“It was extremely well received, based on the feedback data. I believe this training and continued assistance from the ADL in the future will go a long way to cultivate a caring and nurturing school community.” He echoed those sentiments at Back to School Night.

“Our teachers were really engaged and energized by these conversations,” Francese adds. “They’re the starting point for making Staples a safer — and braver — space.”

Bullying And Cyber-Threats: The (Teen) Experts Speak

“Stricter parents make sneakier children.”

That was one of the gems offered Thursday night. The Westport Arts Center and Anti-Defamation League presented a workshop on “What Children Wish Their Parents Knew About Bullying, Cyber-Bullying and Name-Calling.” It was part of the WAC’s current “More Than Words” exhibition, about that topic.

Marji Lipshez-Shapiro — ADL-Connecticut’s director of education — led the event. But the high school panelists stole the show.

They’re the ones who delivered insights like the one about strict parents and sneaky children. The speaker above was explaining that because teenagers’ technical skills far outstrip their parents’, mutual trust makes that relationship work.

Johnny Donovan and Megan Hines — co-presidents of Staples’ Kool To Be Kind group — and fellow K2BK members Gavin Berger, Brian Greenspan, Isabel Handa, Ben Klau and Emerson Kobak — reassured the 100 parents in attendance that they’re raising their kids well. They praised the school system and town for their bullying prevention and intervention programs.

The panelists also presented some scary previews of what’s ahead.

Brian Greenspan, Ben Klau, Gavin Berger and Emerson Kobak were part of the Kool To Be Kind panel at the Westport Arts Center.

Brian Greenspan, Ben Klau, Gavin Berger and Emerson Kobak were part of the Kool To Be Kind panel at the Westport Arts Center….

Among their thoughts:

One Stapleite said that Instagram is a good way for 7th graders to start on social media. Facebook can be added in late middle school. Beware: Snapchat can be “dangerous.”

But another said, “Let kids discover social media on their own. Putting on age restrictions makes something seem taboo.”

When one panelist’s parents gave her a smartphone, they asked for her passcode — and told her they could check it any time. They don’t — but she realizes they can. “So I know the boundaries,” she concluded.

Parents should teach their children that the cyber world is not private. Middle schoolers “don’t know that innately.”

Some parents limit their kids’ technology use by making sure phones, laptops and other devices are charged each night in the kitchen — or parents’ rooms. One K2BK member was actually relieved by that rule. “I would’ve gotten no sleep in middle school if I could have texted all night,” he said. Another explained, “It’s not healthy to be distracted all the time.”

...And so were Johnny Donovan, Megan Hines and Isabel Handa.

…And so were Johnny Donovan, Megan Hines and Isabel Handa.

Stresses on tweens and teens are real. “Don’t say ‘get over it,'” one of the panelists noted. “That doesn’t help at all.”

As for bullying: Classmates and older kids are not the only perpetrators. “The meanest thing anyone ever said to me was by a teacher,” one boy noted.

When should parents call other parents about an issue between their children?

“It ends at elementary school,” one girl said. “After that, kids need to learn to fight their own battles.”

“It’s never too young to encourage your child to have her own voice,” another member added. “But you still have to let them know you’ll always be there for them.”

Bullying can take place in person, or in cyberspace.

Bullying can take place in person, or in cyberspace.

Megan gave a particularly powerful presentation. Speaking personally — as someone who does not take Advanced Placement or Honors courses, and who has been called “stupid” because of her passion for fashion merchandising — she spoke articulately, and at times painfully, about her journey to believe in herself.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed, raising a child who can stand up to name-calling; who does not bully, and who can navigate the complex world of cyberspace, is a comes down to trust.

“My parents gave me the stage,” one of the Staples students said. “And they let me tell my own story on it.”

Westporter Helps ADL Fight Hate, Unite State

Steve Ginsburg has been nearly every kind of lawyer.

He practiced sports law with a big Chicago firm (“that’s as cool as law gets,” he says). He helped rebuild the judicial system in Sarajevo, served as general counsel of a New York tech company, returned to Illinois as general counsel of a state agency that regulated banking and finance, then did legal work as a healthcare and education consultant.

He’d never been part of a Jewish group. But when a friend asked him to be the Anti-Defamation League’s #2 guy in the Midwest, Ginsburg agreed. The organization’s broader mission of fighting for social justice everywhere resonated with him.

Then his wife — who works for Starwood — was transferred to the hotel chain’s Stamford headquarters.

Fortuitously, the ADL’s Connecticut regional director job was open. A few months ago, Ginsburg was hired.

Steve Ginsburg

Steve Ginsburg

It’s an intriguing time for the ADL. In the US, and around the globe, hate speech and bias crimes are on the rise. The ADL is a leader in anti-bullying and anti-bias education. Many of its national programs were created in the Connecticut office.

Ginsburg and his wife bought a house in Westport. They knew little about the town, beyond its reputation for excellent schools and a strong Jewish community. Plus, it was halfway between Stamford, and ADL’s New Haven office.

They’ve found something more than they expected: A place that is truly committed to all forms of social justice.

That fits well with the ADL’s mission. Right now it’s focused on fighting groups that have been singled out for prejudice, particularly the Muslim, LGBT and black communities.

Soon after Ginsburg arrived, a mosque in Meriden, Connecticut was shot at. Muslim students in the state said they were afraid to go to school.

ADL logoADL worked with Muslim religious leaders, school superintendents and boards of education to create an educational program. It includes “Islam 101,” case studies of issues faced by Muslim students in schools, like clothing and holidays, and a panel of teens and college students telling their life stories.

Ginsburg hopes the Connecticut program becomes a national model. It could also be expanded to other groups, like Hispanics.

Connecticut ADL has helped the US attorney’s office and FBI do security training for mosques. They’re modeled on previous training programs for synagogues. Nationally, ADL is the top trainer of law enforcement, focusing on hate crimes and extremist groups.

“We’re building a way for the ADL to play a major role in the current disconnect between law enforcement and African Americans, in the wake of Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore,” Ginsburg says.

“Something could happen close to home — in Hartford, New Haven or Bridgeport,” he adds. “We need to marry ADL’s relationships and trust with law enforcement, and our anti-bias education. We want to be part of the solution.”

Of course, Ginsburg notes, the ADL continues to fight anti-Semitism, and attacks on Israel. The organization monitors college campuses, where the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement and free speech issues have become flash points.

There’s a lot going on, and Steve Ginsburg eagerly takes it all on.

But he still finds time — in his new Westport community — to coach his son’s baseball team.

Maybe he’s not so far from his first job — in sports law — after all.

Does God Hate Fags? Find Out March 28.

I am not Mexican. I can only imagine how Mexicans felt when Donald Trump called them “killers and rapists.”

I am not Muslim. So I can only imagine how members of that religion felt when Trump said “they’re not coming to this country if I’m president.”

I am not disabled. I can only imagine, then, how anyone with a disability felt when the Republican front-runner mocked a journalist born with deformed hands.

But I am gay. So I do not have to imagine what it is like for someone to call me a “fag,” spit in my face, and say that God sent 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and many other disasters to America because of me.

"Reverend" Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

“Reverend” Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

Even though “Reverend” Phelps was batshit crazy — and is probably right now burning in the same hell he roared I’m headed for — it’s pretty scary to know that someone, somewhere, despised a group of people so much he spent his life spewing vile garbage about them.

About me.

He was not alone. He had an entire “church” — well, mostly relatives he’d brainwashed — behind him.

But some of those church members began to think for themselves.

“Rev.” Fred Phelps’ granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper questioned the Westboro Baptist “Church”‘s vitriolic protests against gays (and Jews, members of the military, and so many other groups). Eventually, they fled.

And on Monday, March 28 (7 p.m.) they’ll be at the Westport Country Playhouse, giving an inspiring talk about their journey from hatred to love.

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

The event is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. The moderator is ADL national director of civil rights Deborah Lauter.

She was a frequent target of Megan — and the rest of the “church” — on social media. The sisters will discuss what it was like to love their family, but be raised in such a hate-filled environment.

Yet it was social media — specifically, Megan’s engagement with an unlikely source on Twitter — that opened their eyes to broader perspectives. Today, they’re active allies in the war on hate.

“God Hates Fags” has special meaning for me.

ADL logoBut so does “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” “Your Pastor is a Whore.” And any other sign that Fred Phelps and his clan — including, not long ago, his granddaughters — hoisted.

Those signs should have special meaning for all of us. Singling one group out demeans everyone.

That’s why I am sure every seat will be filled on March 28, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Our town — and our country — are better than the hateful rhetoric we hear too much these days.

We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Under — or without — any god you like.

(For tickets to the March 28 event, click here. For a fascinating, in-depth New Yorker story on Megan Phelps-Roper, click here.)