Monday’s Board of Education meeting was heated. The Staples High School library’s banned books display was one reason. Another was the board’s vote against adding that issue to their already long agenda.
But residents were allowed to speak during the public session, before the first agenda item. Nine did.
Midway through the discussion, a man in a beige coat moved quickly toward a teenage girl. Lilly Weisz was taking photos for Inklings, the school newspaper.
He stood menacingly over her. “He was really, really intimidating,” one observer said.
Two Westport Public Schools staff members — waiting for a later agenda item — got up, to stand nearby.
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice saw what was happening. He left his seat, and stood next to the student for several minutes. “He wanted to make sure she was safe,” a meeting attendee said.
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice stands between an Inklings reporter and a man who had moved intimidatingly toward her. (Contributed photo)
One person at the meeting was so worried, he called 911.
Eventually, the man left.
Lilly says, “As a journalist, we’re trained to expect anything from anyone. There was a lot of tension at the meeting, and there are a feelings about journalists all around the nation.”
She says the man approached her, and asked why she was taking pictures. She explained she was with the school paper. “I’m here to gather as much information as I can, and write an unbiased article.”
She felt “aggression toward me.” However, Lilly says, after other people talked to him, he apologized.
“I don’t think he represents his entire side,” she notes. “People from both sides thanked me afterward for reporting on the issue. Overall, I felt supported by the community. I think people wanted me to succeed.”
Lilly’s story will appear in the next print edition of Inklings.
The paper’s co-advisor Mary Elizabeth Fulco says, “I am extremely proud of my Inklings reporter, Lilly Weisz, for her demonstrated maturity, professionalism and courage.”
Several residents contacted “06880” yesterday, saying they had never seen behavior like that. One called it “appalling, and abhorrent.”
We all know that over the past few years, social norms, civility and public discourse have deteriorated.
Up to now, behavior like that has happened in other places.
On Monday night, it was in full display at an open town meeting.
Last night, a controversy brewing on social media bubbled over to the Board of Education.
In the meeting’s public session, several residents spoke about a “banned books” display at the Staples High School library. The event — held for 17 years, and sponsored by the American Library Association — includes the 10 most challenged books from the previous year.
Three of the books addressed LGBTQ issues. They are “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy” and “This Book is Gay.” All have been in the Staples library for 3-5 years. Some or all of them are also in the school libraries of neighboring towns, and districts similar to Staples elsewhere in Connecticut and Westchester County.
Seven speakers last night spoke vehemently against the display. They called the books “pornographic” and “inappropriate for children.”
Some of the speakers said that Westport schools are “grooming” and “sexualizing” students.
One woman charged Staples with “indoctrinating” students into Marxism. “You obviously want to dismantle the nuclear family,” she said.
Two speakers voiced approval of the banned books display. “It is important for disparate views to be heard” in school, one said.
The controversy was not on the Board’s agenda. A motion to add it for discussion last night was defeated.
Last week, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice sent a long letter to the Board of Education. He explained relevant Westport Public Schools policies; the materials selection process; the results of his investigation into “Banned Book Week,”and the process by which residents can challenge materials.
Thomas Scarice has been superintendent of schools for less than 2 years. He took the job in the early days of COVID. He knew he’d deal with an unprecedented educational crisis — and would have to learn his new school district in unprecedented ways.
He’s done that, and much more. Today, grateful Westporter Rachel Markus explains why she nominated him for this week’s Unsung Hero honors:
Thomas Scarice has been a fantastic leader for educators, students and parents since taking the helm during such challenging times.
His compassion for all parties and open, honest, informative communications have endeared him to many. His ability to help us navigate through tragedies — from one in the community at the end of the 2021 school year, to the unspeakable event in Texas — with such compassion and empathy, while marshalling resources — is a wonderful reminder that our children are in wonderful and capable hands in the Westport school system.
Superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice doing what he loves most: Sitting with students. This photo is from Long Lots Elementary School.
Tom Scarice has proven time and again his ability to listen and encourage patience and dialogue; to wait for information and truth before rushing to make decisions or hasty conclusions.
His tireless dedication to the community is evident in the little things too, such as his 4 a.m. calls with meteorologists in the unenviable task of predicting when to call a snow day.
Many other Westporters — including those without children in the school system — echo Rachel’s words. As the school year ends: Thanks, Superintendent of Schools Scarice, for guiding us so well through it.
(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email email@example.com)
I want to run, I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame, where the streets have no name.
17-year-old me heard the words of an Irish poet, and interpreted them simply as a license to drive faster. The pulsating rhythms and escalating sounds just made my dad’s car go faster, or so it seemed.
In a quiet, saddened state, 51-year-old me heard these words last night and somehow found solace. That same energy began to rush through me. But with each pounding step on the pavement, running from something, or to something, I used that energy to push to find some sliver of transcendent hope.
As the son of a professional musician, it should come as no surprise that I’ve always had music to accompany me on my journey. Whether it is to celebrate, to inspire, to comfort, or to ignite, I’ve always had music to help me transcend.
I saw this today. I found transcendent hope within the walls of our schools today. I saw this in our schools, with your children, led by some of the very best.
Superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice, earlier this year at Long Lots Elementary School.
I pounded my feet on the floor of a preschool classroom with about a dozen raucous little friends to the music of Laurie Berkner. I kneeled on the carpet of a kindergarten classroom pondering the many ways my new friends can compose the number 9 with unifix cubes. I watched a herd of middle schoolers soak up Mother Nature’s best during their recess. In each school I visited, I found countless professionals who came with their very best today.
Our building principals worked to provide guidance to our faculty and support staff before the school day even began. Our partners with the Westport Police Department were ready and willing to provide reassurance with their visibility. We even had our second successful coordinated emergency response in one week, as the Fire and Police Departments helped impeccably address a small electrical fire at Long Lots Elementary School.
In all of these examples, I saw nothing but professionalism and expertise. The type of professionalism and expertise that inspires me to transcend the moment. The hurt is still there, but a sliver of transcendent hope emerged from those that serve your children and our community.
We are not perfect. We are a system composed of imperfect people. But today, on the backs of our team, we took a baby step towards transcending.
If I’ve learned anything as a father, and as an educator, it is that our kids are watching us. Every move. They saw us in action today and I could not be more proud of our team.
I wanted to provide a broad overview to the entire school community, but as we move forward, building principals will continue to communicate any necessary information related to events leading up to the last day of school.
There will be increased patrols across our campuses and we will have additional police presence on campus during elementary school field days. Fortunately, our team regularly practices drills and reviews our protocols at the building level, and we will continue to remain vigilant, doing our best to ensure the highest standards of safety. If you have specific questions related to your child’s school I encourage you to contact your building principal.
If you need assistance in speaking with your child about Tuesday’s tragedy, here are some resources that you might find helpful:
Click here for “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers.”
Click here for “How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings.”
The shelter-in-place order for both Staples High School and Bedford Middle School has been lifted.
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice said moments ago: “the matter is resolved. A follow up message is forthcoming.”
Twenty minutes earlier, he wrote:
“I would like to provide an immediate update to the community. Immediately after calling for a shelter in place, the Westport Police Department swiftly dispatched all resources to the Staples/Bedford campus, while also maintaining the capacity to respond to all schools if necessary.
“I was personally assured of this by our Police Chief. Police resources are all over our campus and school buildings. We will remain in a shelter in place until there is final resolution established in collaboration with the Westport Police Department.”
Scarice’s initial email, shortly after 10 a.m., said:
“Moments ago, as a precaution, and in collaboration with the Westport Police Department, the school district put Staples high school in Bedford middle school in a shelter in place. A report came to the districts attention of a potential person on campus that warranted this response. All students and staff are secure and we will report back to the community when the matter is completely resolved.”
In less than 2 years, superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice has made a name as one of Westport’s most trusted leaders.
He’s also one of the most popular guests on “06880: The Podcast.”
The reasons for both are clear: He is a clear communicator. He speaks with clarity, and does not duck difficult issues. He has a vision, and — though he knows not everyone will agree with all, or even some, of it — he wants the town to hear it.
This week, Superintendent Scarice returns to the Westport Library’s Verso Studios. I asked about 2 main topics: the physical state of our school facilities, and the importance of connection and belonging among all who spend their days in those buildings.
Click below for another fascinating conversation with our town’s top educator.
Develop welcoming and affirming school communities
Increase access to educational programming for every student
Overhaul data systems: disaggregate data collection, analysis and usage
Invest in ongoing professional teaming and development.
Those are the recommendations of the New York University Steinhardt Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.
They were hired by the district, to focus on students’ experiences in our schools. Those experiences, says superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice, are “foundational to the overall academic, psychological and social development of all students, and are a critically necessary component of public education.”
There is a “moral imperative” in public schools, he adds, for “the identities of all students (to be) seen heard and valued.”
For over a year — complicated by the pandemic — the NYU consultants looked at a variety of indicators (student performance, discipline data, surveys, etc.) and conducted focus groups with students, parents and staff, to see how various subgroups (for example racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic status, and disability) compared in areas like access to programs and services, school climate, and curriculum and instruction.
Tonight (Monday, April 25, 7 p.m., Staples High School cafeteria), the Board of Education will examine the equity study. They’ll begin making plans to work with Scarice on action steps. (Click here to read Scarice’s letter to the Board of Ed, offering background information on the study, and its historical background in American education.)
The 72-page report provides detailed statistics on the racial, ethnic, gender and disability makeup of the schools’ students and staff; comments from focus group participants on school climate in areas like expectations, competition, achievement, and sensitivity of classmates and educators to students who are not white, affluent, able-bodied, cisgendered or straight, as well as expectations and implications for instruction and curriculum.
The report includes a number of comments from focus groups, detailing areas that students, parents and staff feel the district is handling well or poorly.
The NYU consultants’ 4 recommendations covered areas like:
Recognizing the marginalization of vulnerable communities (Black, Latinx, LGBTQ), and the importance of educating through an intersectional lens
Examining how students are selected for Advanced Placement, Honors, A and B academic tracks, to address disproportionality
Analyzing and systematizing discipline referrals and codes of conduct
Developing a plan to develop administrators, teachers and staff that responds to the needs of students and families across all kinds of differences.
As the week comes to a close, I would like to share the latest update on the Governor’s Executive Order mandating universal masking in schools. There are a number of steps involved, and I will outline below in detail.
The Governor’s Recommendation and the CT Legislative Process
The statewide mask mandate for schools in Connecticut is set to expire at midnight on February 15. On February 7 Governor Lamont held a press conference, and with the support of the state Department of Public Health, he recommended that the statewide mask mandate in Connecticut schools extend to February 28. Under the Governor’s recommended proposal, local school districts would have the authority to make decisions about mask requirements in schools.
Yesterday, the state House of Representatives voted to extend the current school mask requirements until February 28, after which local communities will determine their own school masking requirements.
The Senate is scheduled to act on this legislation on February 14. It is expected they will follow suit. and that the current state mandate requiring masks in schools will expire on February 28.
With these decisions and actions at the state level, I would like to make our school community aware that public transportation, i.e. school buses, continues to be governed by federal requirements for universal masking and the actions of the Governor and legislature do not change federal requirements. Unless there is action at the federal level, masks will continue to be required on our buses.
It is still uncertain at this time what the rules and public health guidance will be for masking in local school districts when the governor’s emergency powers expire and the State Senate takes final action. Therefore, at this time, it would be premature for us to make a final determination regarding masking in our schools. Yet all signs appear to indicate that this state universal masking requirement will sunset on February 28.
Next Steps – Superintendent’s Recommendation to End the Mask Mandate
In the coming days, as these final pieces of information are provided at the state level, I will continue to consult with our local health district and medical advisor. I intend to make a recommendation to the Board of Education at their anticipated special meeting on Wednesday February 16 to end the mask mandate in the Westport Public Schools when permitted at the state level, perhaps as early as February 28.
The governor’s recommendation, supported by the Department of Public Health, indicates that universal masking is not a necessary public health intervention at this point in time. Vaccination rates in our community, even across our student population, are among the highest in the state. In addition, as a result of the widespread infection rate of the Omicron variant, many have also developed natural immunity.
Daily infection rates have dropped precipitously over the past few weeks as noted by our daily reports. Notably, our daily case rates are reported for the entire school community population, which is over 5,000 students, and approximately 1,000 employees. We have averaged just over 5 new daily cases out of over 6,000 individuals this week. Furthermore, our recent weekly serial testing of 539 students surfaced only 2 positive cases on Monday.
All of these factors influence my final recommendation to the Board of Education to end the mask mandate in our schools.
However, there are many considerations we must take into account with any elimination of the universal masking mandate. It is important to note as the pandemic continues to evolve, it will be necessary to maintain mitigating measures. Ventilation, social distancing, hand hygiene, weekly testing, and self-isolation when testing positive, all continue to be effective means in controlling virus spread. We will continue to implement these measures to the extent possible.
Consideration for Others
Along with many issues in the modern world, the pandemic, vaccines, and masking, have become polarizing topics. It is not lost on me that while many rightfully feel ready to move forward, there are those in our community who experienced traumatic hardships and have lost loved ones during these past two years. It is our responsibility to be sensitive to those students we serve who have been most significantly affected by the pandemic.
On Thursday I met with the district administrative team, all principals, assistant principals and coordinators. We discussed the importance of supporting each and every one of our students as we approach the next phase of the pandemic. At some point, perhaps as soon as February 28, families will make decisions for their children with regards to masking. When that happens, we are committed to supporting the personal choice of each individual student and staff member, and to protecting everyone in our school community from unwelcome comments and behaviors. To that end, we will be providing resources and talking points next week as a support.
We will continue to carefully monitor case rates and attendance and evaluate any new guidance issued by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Adjustments to our approach will be made as necessary.
Connecticut has taken a national lead in empowering youth voices.
Now Staples has taken a lead in making it happen.
This morning, the high school welcomed Governor Ned Lamont, Congressman Jim Himes and State Senator Will Haskell. They, and 2 members of the state Department of Education, outlined a new $1.5 million program — part of the national American Rescue Plan — that allocates $20,000 to 85 schools. Current students propose ideas for their building, then vote on which one to implement.
Then the adults sat back and listened, to a dozen student ideas.
Westport Schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice (far right) greets Governor Ned Lamont. Also at the event (from left): Congressman Jim Himes, State Senator Will Haskell and Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas.
Himes noted that while the federal government works “at scale” — allocating $6 trillion in COVID relief — it can’t understand the needs of individual communities. That’s where the “Voice4Change” program comes in.
It was an intriguing morning. Lamont, Himes and Haskell addressed the Staples students as intelligent, involved people. They did not talk down or pander; they did not try to score political points, often pointing out the bipartisan nature of COVID relief funds. They listened and took notes.
Lamont did give props to Connecticut as “an entrepreneur factory.” Why, he wondered, can’t some entrepreneurial ideas come from students?
“I’m all ears,” he said.
Governor Lamont at the podium.
Among the ideas: strengthened school security, including ID cards for student access to the building, and metal detectors; installing solar panels in the parking lot, as at Fairfield Warde High; and enhanced ties between Staples and neighboring, less affluent school districts.
Proposals are due to the state Department of Education by January 9. Each school will have its own ballot, for voting on March 11.
First Selectwoman Jen Tooker offered to mentor students who have ideas. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice challenged them to find sources to match the $20,000.
Staples High School students listen to ideas for Voice4Change.
Lamont had to leave for another engagement. But Himes, Haskell, the state Education reps, and town officials stuck around to chat.
It was a tossup who was more inspired: the students, or them.
Staples High School senior Natalie Bandura is the high school representative on the state Board of Education. She spoke to fellow students about the Voice4Change initiative. (Photos/Dan Woog)
Last night, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice sent this message to the community:
Safety and Security: It is troubling to consider that the only period of time void of school shootings occurred during the remote learning and full quarantine in the spring of 2020. Again yesterday, another unspeakable act of school violence took the lives of 4 innocent children in Michigan. In Connecticut, there were reports of a prop gun in one high school, a stabbing just outside another high school, and a bomb threat in a neighboring district. These events are an unfortunate and heartbreaking reminder of the world our children are growing up in.
In Westport, our vigilance in keeping our students safe is resolute, and does not ebb and flow based on such tragedies. We are fortunate to have a strong partnership with our local police department, including regular patrols of a dedicated officer on our campuses, in addition to a full time School Resource Office at our high school.
Additionally, each school is staffed with full-time security personnel, and equipped with cameras and communication systems. Furthermore, our administrative team conducts regular drills to keep our faculty, staff and students fluent in procedures to maintain safety in the event of an emergency.
Finally, our increased focus on proactive measures to build community, while addressing emotional and mental wellness, serves to meet the needs of all of our students in providing interventions to those in distress. However, we count on our families to partner with us in open two way communication as no one knows your child better than you. Together, we can work to celebrate our students in the best of times, and support them in the most challenging of times.
COVID Update: Less than one month ago I shared with our families that COVID infection rates had hovered at levels we had not seen since May. In those few short weeks we have seen an increase in infections in the region, and the warning of the Omicron variant. There is much to learn about how this variant might, or might not, impact our community. his is precisely why approaching the school year in 4-6 week increments is important.
Fortunately, hundreds of 5-11-year-olds have been vaccinated in town, or are receiving their second shot, in addition to the high rate of vaccination among our staff, secondary students, and the community at large.
State Senator Will Haskell and Long Lots Elementary School nurse Max Zimmer, at last month’s vaccination clinic for 5-11-year-olds, at Staples High School. (Photo/Dan Woog)
K-6 Weekly Serial Testing: With these developments, we will continue to administer our K-6 weekly voluntary serial testing program through the end of the calendar year at a minimum. Given transmission rates at that time, we will reassess the program and make considerations for the new year.
Lunch and Dismissal: Students have returned to the cafeteria for lunch with some schools making modest exceptions based on sizes of individual grade levels. We continue to distance to the maximum extent possible. Additionally, each school, particularly at the elementary level, revised dismissal procedures to determine the most efficient way to release students to parents who are not taking the bus. Each school has a slightly different dismissal procedure based on a variety of factors (i.e. driveway capacity, traffic flow, etc.).
Vaccination Requirement for School Visitors: Since the beginning of the school year we have required proof of vaccination for school visitors. Additionally, the governor used his executive powers to mandate vaccination for all employees with the provision of legal exemptions. We will continue to require vaccination for school visitors but we will employ the same approach for unvaccinated visitors as we do for unvaccinated employees. Effective immediately, we will require evidence of a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior to visiting our schools for unvaccinated visiting parents and caregivers.
School Performances and Concerts: It is the time of year for school concerts and performances. When rates plummeted last month we were able to welcome audiences with 100% capacity. With the recent increase in infection rates, the Westport/Weston Health District and our medical advisor, Dr. Norman Wienberger, have both asked that we limit audiences to accommodate appropriate distancing between family units. Some schools might use alternative venues to accommodate all parents. Your child’s school principal will provide additional information on this topic.
We continue to recommend and expect all visitors will be vaccinated or test negative for COVID within 72 hours of attending a school concert or performance. Although we do not have the resources to check individuals upon entry after hours, it is an expectation and I am confident that our families will honorably respect this requirement.
This year’s Candlelight Concert will include audience and other restrictions. It may look different from this 2020 performance — but the 81-year tradition continues.
Universal Masking: The Governor’s universal masking mandate for schools remains in effect through February 15. It is possible, based on vaccination and infection rates, that the Governor will revisit this provision after the New Year. In the interim, we will maintain universal masking.
Modified Quarantine Procedures “Screen and Stay”: =We have successfully implemented the new quarantine procedures, “Screen and Stay” in the past month for students identified as close contacts. Vaccinated students and staff are not required to quarantine.
We will continue to monitor conditions as we flexibly employ mitigating measures in response to the pandemic. While rates have increased recently, I want to assure our families that throughout the entire pandemic, like most school districts, we have experienced little to no virus spread in our schools.
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