Shrewsbury students weigh in on debate over Black History Month poem

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Shrewsbury students weigh in on debate over Black History Month poemSHREWSBURY – Shrewsbury school leaders recently spoke out in response to backlash against a student poem that was read during a Black History Month assembly last month.

The poem was written and read by a Shrewsbury High School student. It has since been the subject of debate in town.

While residents have voiced their opinions on social media, in public meetings and in a Back the Blue demonstration on the Shrewsbury Town Common, the discourse has also impacted schools, officials said, leading to a “difficult” series of weeks in the community.

Students were not being ‘indoctrinated,’ students say 

Shrewsbury resident and Congressional candidate Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette said during one School Committee meeting last month that the poem portrayed police officers as “predators and murderers of Black children and parents.” He said the district was “indoctrinating” students.

Chair Jon Wensky read a letter from the student-led Black History Committee during a separate meeting on March 2 that responded to some of these accusations.

“Seeing lies spread about the assembly invalidates all the hard work we put into it,”Wensky read. “People have reduced the assembly to one topic rather than taking the message we were trying to convey.”

In “no way” were students being indoctrinated, the students on the committee wrote.

Their peers were, instead, presenting Black struggles and discussing how they are rising above those struggles.

The poem in question was specifically focused on George Floyd and was not meant to “bash” any officers, they said.

The students said they were concerned about “rude” comments online and a “lack of support from our school community.”

“There is no way for us to make change without debate and discussion,” they wrote. “And change certainly will not come if people are not open to topics that make them uncomfortable.”

Superintendent Joseph Sawyer said some of the struggles of the past few weeks have been due to discourse among students about the poem.

However, he said much of the “outrage” and “vitriol” has also been generated by the posting of an audio recording of the poem on social media and allegations that this “indoctrination” was responsible for the students’ mental health issues.

“It’s important for me to say, as your superintendent, that I find using a minor student’s self expression, no matter how much you may object to its message, for a divisive political campaign for purposes is just wrong,” Sawyer said. “I hope our community collectively rejects this.”

‘We don’t ban ideas’

Sossa-Paquette, who spoke again on March 2, said that Sawyer and SHS Principal Todd Bazydlo “stood behind the kids and blamed the children instead of taking responsibility” in this situation.

Also speaking on March 2, though, community members, parents and School Committee members spoke out against Sossa-Paquette’s statements.

“This is not a district tha bans books and we don’t ban ideas and we don’t ban topics. We talk about them,” said Lynsey Heffernan. “Racism is real and is active in our community until we call it out.”

As part of the meeting, the committee reviewed and reaffirmed its policy giving students the right to study controversial issues.

Bazydlo, meanwhile, discussed ongoing responses to issues at SHS.

“Racism is a real issue in our society,” Bazydlo said. “Racism is an issue at Shrewsbury High School.”

He referenced two instances in the fall involving racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. The people who wrote the graffiti have been held responsible, he said.

Bazydlo said the police are involved whenever the school is given information about threats.

The school further investigates and provides support for those impacted by bullying, he said.

“Our school and my job as principal is student safety — that’s the number one priority,” Bazydlo said.

The high school has also begun providing forums to have dialogue about the situation.

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