WESTBOROUGH – A series of incidents of hateful graffiti in Westborough High School prompted a range of emotions both within the school and the community at large earlier this month.
As the district’s response to these incidents continues, administrators are condemning these actions while asking that conversations about them be contextualized.
“These are horribly upsetting incidents,” Superintendent Amber Bock told the Community Advocate on Dec. 22. “Westborough is focused on responding quickly and appropriately. We recognize the importance of keeping the community informed.”
WHS grapples with hateful graffiti
The first of two separate incidents took place in late November when the N-word was found written in a school stairwell.
A second incident then took place on Dec. 20, with school staff confirming that swastikas had been drawn in a boys bathroom.
A third incident took place on Dec. 21, with photos shared with the Community Advocate documenting additional hateful graffiti targeting a number of different marginalized groups.
Westborough High School parent Renee Thompson said on Dec. 22 that she felt “shock and disbelief” following the swastika incident.
She then described the reaction her daughter and one of her daughter’s friends had to this latest instance of graffiti.
“They can’t believe this is happening in their school and feel disgusted and awful that it’s happening,” Thompson said.
Administrators detail response
The Westborough Public Schools sent communication to parents following the late November and Dec. 20 incidents at Westborough High School.
The Schools initiated investigations and most recently held a series of discussions with students on Dec. 21 following the swastika incident the day before, Bock said.
Bock said that an additional investigation is ongoing regarding the third incident on Dec. 21.
“I feel protective, because I want to be able to be in this place of complete transparency and honesty, and yet I also feel that sometimes we’re in the middle of active investigations, and it’s not productive to be speaking about things,” she said in response to a question about that Dec. 21 graffiti.
“I think we can be clear that things are being done and that we have a very stringent and thoughtful and intense…investigation process that includes police when necessary and thoughtful investigation, interviewing [and] photographing,” she continued. “We’re very thoughtful, and we don’t sidestep those responsibilities. We take them very seriously. And we make sure that we’re very systematic about it.”
Bock said the district has “a very good history of solving issues like this” and credited that to the care with which she said it handles such situations.
She noted that graffiti cases can be inherently hard to solve and said that Westborough has seen “very few” such cases over the years. Still, she said, each incident is upsetting and has an impact on the community.
In terms of its recent response, Bock described the district’s “stop and pause” conversation with Westborough High School students on Dec. 21, which included discussions about actions the district can take going forward.
Westborough Assistant Superintendent Daniel Mayer said central office administrators were in contact with Westborough High School Principal Brian Callahan throughout the day on Dec. 21. As such, he said, they heard feedback from ongoing discussions at the high school.
“There was a very strong consensus among the students that they were embarrassed and disappointed in the fact that these two incidents had happened,” Mayer said. “And they wanted to make sure that they’re not associated with those kinds of attitudes.”
District conducted survey on school climate
The Westborough Public Schools previously conducted a survey last year examining perceptions of race, racism, diversity and inclusion in school communities.
Administrators then presented the results of that survey to the School Committee, highlighting areas and issues that the district, indeed, needed to address.
“That there are members of the BIPOC community who do not feel as welcome as we want them to feel,” Mayer said. “That’s a national issue and then we just took it on locally without any incident provoking us to do it other than wanting to make sure that we were an anti-racist community that would make sure that all of the students that are here feel welcome.”
He discussed recent incidents, noting those in the context of district efforts and conversations in schools.
“They’re two graffiti acts,” he said. “They’re students writing on bathroom walls. As far as we know, we’ve got two students, maybe one student who is doing something that is not acceptable and that is shameful.”
“Students will do things that they shouldn’t do,” he continued. “We need to have discussions about it. But just because we have two incidents of graffiti, we have to be careful about how we go about responding to that, and not, sort of making it seem as if there’s a global problem when it might be just one or two people that are trying to get the attention of members of the community.”
Bock noted in a Dec. 20 email to parents that the district had already planned a student feedback session “to discuss ways in which students and staff can work to make our school as the respectful place we want it to be and that it needs to be.”
This event had been scheduled prior to these most recent graffiti incidents. It is another part of ongoing district efforts to improve school climate, among other things, Bock said.
Hate speech challenges schools, society
All this does take place amid larger issues of hate speech in schools and in society.
A number of other districts across the state and the country have grappled with such incidents.
“Permission has been given by adults in the last several years to make these kinds of comments,” Mayer said. “Our children are just mimicking what they see in society. And the reason why you’re seeing an uptick in this kind of behavior in schools is not mysterious, given what we’ve seen in the world over the last several years.”
Bock discussed district communication in this context.
“These are complex issues that require thoughtful investigation,” she said. “So, I think we don’t want to create an emotional emphasis and attention to the behavior of a few people demonstrating a behavior that we’re trying to diminish.”
Outside groups, individuals respond to Westborough incidents
Central Massachusetts Connections in Faith denounced recent hateful graffiti in a letter to the editor published in this week’s Community Advocate.
The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts issued its own statement on Dec. 20 following news of the swastika graffiti that day. They commended the actions of Westborough school officials and said they had reached out to the district to offer support.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge weighed in as well, responding to these incidents while also praising the actions of district administrators to address them.
Bock said she was proud of her district’s actions following these graffiti incidents as she was proud of Westborough students, themselves.
“We also don’t want to minimize the incredibly good behavior of the vast majority of our students, down to feeling that this incident defines them,” she said. “They want to condemn that behavior publicly and step out against it.”