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Newton school principals receive racist messages over student discussions of Rittenhouse and Arbery cases

The exterior Newton North High School in August 2019.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Two Black principals in the Newton Public Schools have received “racist and confrontational” messages in response to their approach in helping students process the verdicts in the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and the men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery, Superintendent David Fleishman said Friday.

Bigelow Middle School principal Chassity Coston and Newton North principal Henry Turner received the messages by voicemail and e-mail as well as social media, Fleishman said.

“They have not been direct threats,” Fleishman said, adding that “certainly the Newton police have been alerted about what’s happening.”

He decried the messages and said the school district remains committed to promoting racial equality.

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“This is really distressing,” Fleishman said. “It’s important to note that all of our schools are doing this work on race and equity. ... It’s really upsetting, terribly upsetting, and sad that two of our Black principals have been targeted.”

The right-wing outlet Breitbart has recently published articles that criticized the schools’ responses to the high-profile November verdicts, which sparked intense debate over issues of racism and vigilantism.

Rittenhouse was acquitted in the fatal shootings of two men and the wounding of a third during racial justice protests in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wis., after testifying that he acted in self-defense.

Separately, three men were found guilty of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging through a Georgia subdivision in February 2020, after chasing him and trapping him on a quiet street.

After the verdicts, Bigelow offered three areas for students to discuss the news, which Coston described in a Dec. 1 letter to students as “sensitive topics with many layers of political, racial, and social concerns.”

One space would be for students who “know a good amount of what happened and ... are ready to talk about how this affects you/our community.” A second area, called the “Rumor Control Room,” would be made available for students who were less familiar with the cases and wanted to learn more about the facts presented at trial, Coston wrote.

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A third space would host “Questions & Discussion for Students of Color,” giving the students the chance to come together “with other Bigelow students of color to process and get answers to any questions you have regarding these two cases,” she wrote.

On Monday, Breitbart ran a story under the headline, “Massachusetts Middle School Offers Racially Segregated ‘Safe Spaces’ for Students to ‘Process’ Rittenhouse, Arbery Verdicts.”

But Fleishman said Friday that each discussion space — including the one that focused on students of color — were open to all students.

“All schools are engaged in this work, and affinity groups are not necessarily something new,” Fleishman said. “There’s a lot of research to support them. ... We want to support all students, and make sure all students have a sense of connection, inclusion, and safety.”

Breitbart also ran a critical article Nov. 29 about Turner, highlighting his social media postings following the Rittenhouse verdict and headlining the piece, “Segregation for Racial Justice: Massachusetts Principal Promises Racially Divided Spaces over Rittenhouse Verdict.”

The article pointed to a Nov. 21 blog post from Turner, who wrote that he wasn’t surprised by the Rittenhouse verdict and that school officials could expect students to ask about the case. Turner listed five strategies for helping schools respond, including providing “space for affinity groups for students and staff of color.”

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Such spaces are “particularly important in majority-white schools,” he said. “Allow for people of color time to be together. Make sure students are with an adult that they trust and want to be there.”

Other school districts have faced pressure over affinity groups in recent months, including Wellesley’s.

In October, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group and three local families filed a federal lawsuit against the Wellesley Public Schools, alleging that the district has unfairly created “racial affinity groups” for students of color and adopted policies against biased speech that shame people into silence.

Coston declined to comment Friday. In a phone interview, Turner said that school officials “for a while now have been listening to students who traditionally felt less connected, whether they’re students of color or members of the LGBTQ community.”

The student discussions at Newton North following the Rittenhouse verdict, he said, were highly beneficial for participants.

“I’m really proud of how our students talked about it, and proud of how our staff responded to it,” he said. The critical e-mails he has since received were “clearly not from parents. They were outwardly racist towards me, and hate-filled.”

“From my perspective, it’s been unsettling to receive them,” he added. “At the same time, I know it doesn’t represent our community.”

On Friday, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller expressed support for the principals.

“Two Newton Public School principals, both Black, are being specifically targeted (apparently by people living out of state) in hateful emails and voicemails laced with racism,” Fuller said. “I, as Mayor, give my full support to Henry Turner and Chassity Coston and I know I speak for the Newton community.”

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Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.