Middletown Board of Ed Under Fire for Handling of Antisemitic Graffiti, Lack of Communication


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MIDDLETOWN — Parents and teachers criticized the city public schools at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday for the way that the administration has addressed antisemitic graffiti at the middle school and high school, and for its handling of Middle School Principal Raymond Byron, who was placed on temporary leave for an undisclosed matter.

At the end of February, school administrators discovered that one of the bathrooms at Beman Middle School was repeatedly vandalized with swastikas. In a Feb. 29 letter to the community, Superintendent Alberto Vazquez Matos said that the district was working with the Middletown Police Department to investigate the incidents. 

“Let me be clear: there is no place for hate, intolerance, or discrimination of any kind in the Middletown Public Schools,” Vazquez Matos assured parents and teachers.

Two days later, without explanation, the district announced that Byron had been placed on leave indefinitely. The following week, students staged a walkout in protest of the district’s treatment of Byron, who has since returned from leave. 

Funmiké Shokunbii, a parent, criticized the district’s lack of communication on Byron’s leave and subsequent return.

“I felt like you didn’t have to take a walkout and protest by the students for us to get some explanations,” said Okunbi.

“My daughter went around getting petitions signed just to get her principal back. The protest, at a point there was chaos and people fell on top of my child. Does it have to become a tragedy for us to know what to do?” said Okunbi. 

On March 7, Vazquez Matos released an additional update telling parents that swastikas were found in the bathroom at the high school.

Stephanie Brody, a teacher at Beman Middle School who is also Jewish, said she was disappointed with the district’s overall response to the vandalism.

“In the past few weeks, there have been several instances of anti-semitic vandalism in our schools. However, instead of focusing on the true issue of hate and discrimination, attention shifted in the completely wrong direction, which minimized the severity of these hateful acts, reducing them to mere afterthoughts,” Brody said. “There are people within this district who feel overlooked and are hurting, because they have been experiencing discrimination of all kinds, racial, religious, anti-LGBTQ, and everything in-between.”

Brody said the district and the community needed to do more to create a welcoming and safe environment in the district. 

Parent Vanessa Crowley, who has a sixth grader at Beman, also criticized the district for failing to properly prepare students to discuss such topics. Crowley said her son told her that they had been discussing antisemitism in class before the swastikas appeared in the bathroom, and that they had discussed it “once or twice.” 

“I find it very difficult to understand how a sixth-grade class was taught these words without any type of background knowledge, built-up scaffolding, done. That is not a topic that you can enter lightly,” said Crowley, who is a fourth-grade teacher in another district. 

“Children don’t understand some of these terminologies that are used, and they don’t understand the weight of these terminologies. And I think that was something that we fell short on. And I think it was something that should have been taken a much deeper look at prior to them introducing it into the classroom,” said Crowley. 

A parent also spoke out about the policies governing school bathrooms, the catalyst for yet another walkout, this time at Middletown High School on Tuesday. 

Sarah Lynn Wright said that using the bathroom was a human right.

“[At] the end of January, my child went more than five hours without the ability to use the bathroom. I did speak to the assistant principal, Sarah, the next morning. He told me they were very short-handed on that particular day, and the security guards that usually man the bathrooms had to cover classes,” Wright said. 

Vazquez-Matos said in a letter to families after the walkout that the district would reach out to student leaders for further discussions. 

“We understand that the students have concerns about the current bathroom policy. Moving forward, we encourage students to engage in constructive conversations with us so that we can co-create a bathroom policy that reflects the needs of all in our school community while maintaining a safe and secure environment,” Vazquez-Matos assured parents.

Board Chair Sheila Daniels said at the start of the meeting that the board was not involved in the day-to-day running of the district — that responsibility, she said, lay with the superintendent. 

In response to a request for comment, the district referred CT Examiner back to earlier communications from the superintendent.

Asked for comment, Daniels responded in an email shortly after publication:

“The Middletown Board of Education is saddened by the recent anti-semitic actions taken at Beman and MHS. Our dismay extends beyond these two incidents as we see and hear about other antisemitic and racial actions in schools beyond our city. These biased acts extend out to communities, small and large, throughout our state and country. This is a national issue that needs action at every level to ensure youth everywhere has respect for all of humanity, regardless of anyone’s race or religion.

“Middletown has prided itself as a diverse community. Our diversity should enhance life experiences for all of us. Incidents such as the above mentioned negatively impact our community.

“We are better than that! Let’s work at educating our youth more and making sure we adults are setting an example of kindness for all.

“The Board of Education is trusting the school district administration will continue its efforts of support to the students and staff so everyone feels respected and safe in our schools.”

This story has been updated to include comment by the Board of Education Chair Sheila Daniels, and to ammend the reporting of comments made by Funmiké Shokunbi

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.