Guilford has Almost Destroyed Itself as a Community

To the Editor:

An editorial by Gregory Stroud (“On the Matter of Equity and East Lyme,” Sept. 15) discussed the recent Equity study of the East Lyme Schools. He made an insightful comment about the town of Guilford at the conclusion of the article. Referring to the general turmoil in this community over equity, social justice issues and changes to the curriculum, Mr. Stroud described the town as “tearing itself apart and that East Lyme should want to “avoid the fate of Guilford”. As a resident, I can personally testify to the truth of this description. In fact, it’s an understatement. Guilford has not just torn itself apart over these issues, it has almost destroyed itself as a community. The now poisonous atmosphere in town is also reflected in a highly contentious campaign for several positions on the Board of Education that has just concluded. This campaign is only one of several undercurrents at play in Guilford. What has actually happened in this community?

This spring the Guilford Board of Education announced its commitment to a Social Justice and Equity Initiative in the Guilford Public Schools .There was almost immediate praise for the board’s position by a large segment of the town where a spirit of “wokeism” prevailed. However, a small but vocal minority of residents, began organizing in opposition to what they viewed as a veiled attempt to introduce the tenets of Critical Race Theory into the district.  During the months that have followed, there has been little meaningful public discussion of opposing viewpoints, civil discourse or questioning of the board’s social justice ‘mission’. Local schools are paid for by taxpayers and therefore represent government entities. This is no less true in Guilford. What is the proper role of government in our lives? Is it to establish the moral standards of the community? Indeed, is it to become quasi-parents, to be the entity that instills moral values in our children, including a fundamental respect for all human beings? Who should teach our children about equality and basic human decency, the teacher in the classroom or parents in the home? No one has addressed these questions. Over the months, Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman has done a fine job with his numerous public statements, of convincing many Guilford parents that they themselves are incapable of teaching their own children to view others in society as individuals and worthy of respect. This has been reinforced by a zoom workshop this spring sponsored by PTO organizations in Guilford titled “How to Speak to Your Child About Race”. The issues of race, equity, and whether or not the Superintendent and the BOE are pushing CRT, or its tenets, into Guilford schools as a means to achieve social justice, has created chaos in the community.

Some months ago, five concerned Republican parents launched a campaign to run for open seats on the BOE. They disagreed with the board’s view of itself as having the moral responsibility to intervene between parents and their children on matters of morality and human decency. In addition, the novice candidates viewed with great alarm the purchase and distribution to all teachers in the district of two of the most seminal books about Critical Race Theory, “How to Be An Anti-Racist” and “White Fragility”. The purchase was funded with $6,000 of taxpayer money. The candidate’s campaign was supported by a group of other parents, grandparents and interested citizens who worked as volunteers. All five of the political newcomers went down to defeat in the election on November 2nd. To an extent, this comes as no surprise in this town of approximately 6,600 Democrats  who heavily outnumber the 3,500 registered Republicans. The town also has over 6,000 unaffiliated voters. However, it’s what has transpired during the campaign that further illustrates the deep division in Guilford.

Within the community, these five candidates were immediately associated with discrimination, extremism and ‘far right’ ideologies. They were easy targets and soon became social pariahs because of the emotional nature of the issues. This situation was worsened by the decision made early on by campaign leaders to strictly take the high road in their public pronouncements. Simultaneously, they attempted to project the campaign’s message of needed transparency on the part of the board, and opposition to the injection of CRT into the curriculum by Superintendent Freeman. The term ‘racist’ and others have been thrown at these grass roots candidates and their campaign supporters, not just by their opponents for the BOE, but by huge numbers of their fellow citizens. An atmosphere of Orwellian fear and intimidation now pervades the community. 

The battle for these board positions has been very publicly fought on social media platforms, but especially in the pages of the local newspaper, the Guilford Courier. For months, a weekly barrage of contemptible letters against these candidates and their supporters have appeared in this paper and several others. The candidates have been variously described as white supremacists, political extremists, “a slate that makes your skin crawl” and compared to the KKK among other things. The attempt to counter these scurrilous claims with a vigorous Letters to the Editor effort on their behalf has been hampered by the turn-the-other-cheek approach of the campaign. The candidates and their supporters have been restrained in their ability to effectively defend themselves and thoroughly articulate their positions, especially to those unaffiliated voters who might have voted for their platform.

This relentless attack continued against the candidates and any other members of the community who dared to publicly support them. Many citizens were absolutely unwilling to sign their own names to a Letter to the Editor, to place a campaign sign on their property, or to defend their own school children against harassment in the classroom for fear of retaliation against them. As the person who headed up the letter writing effort, I can personally attest to the difficulties I encountered in soliciting writers to submit endorsement letters for these candidates because of this sense of public intimidation. A  small group of loyal and fearless  writers picked up the gauntlet, sending in a steady stream of supportive letters to local newspapers. In addition, as I went door to door seeking support for our people and listened to the expressions of outright fear on the part of voters, I was stunned. Some residents had to be told, literally on their doorsteps, not to be afraid to cast their vote for our candidates. The fear to express one’s own opinion in the pages of the local newspaper, in the classroom or the public square is one of the legacies of this sad campaign in Guilford which ended in defeat on November 2nd.

We now have neighbor turned against neighbor, friendships permanently shattered and the seemingly idyllic town of Guilford hostage to fear, intolerance and self-righteousness. Undoubtedly, there will follow some superficial effort to heal and unite together in the best interests of the community. However, those who have been publicly slandered and ostracized by many of their fellow citizens simply for asking pointed questions, and following their own consciences, are not the ones who need to look in the mirror. Do we really believe in free speech and an open exchange of opposing opinions in this town?  Guilford clearly has more profound community problems than just who will occupy seats on the Board of Education. This pathetic situation is most certainly a fate to be avoided by other area towns which will eventually examine these same important issues for themselves.

Colleen Roberts
Guilford, CT

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