Sage Paglia recalled being in virtual high school in February when a student-driven lesson began on the sensitive topic of bias. The teacher of this lesson? Celebrity Kanye West, who argued that the month of observance does more harm than good.
“What they show in Black History Month is us getting hosed down, reminding us that we were slaves,” West says in the video shown to students at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge. “What if we had, ‘Remember when I cheated on you’ month?’ ‘Remember when you first found the text messages?’ How does that make you feel? It makes you feel depleted.”
The Connecticut school’s decision to run the video criticizing Black History Month -- without offering a counterpoint -- has sparked an ongoing controversy that resulted in a school principal’s apology to students, the school board receiving several complaints and a Zoom meeting between parents and the principal. And it left Paglia, who identifies as Black and Afro-Latino, angry and confused.
“Because there was no discussion afterwards, so I didn’t even have a chance to ask questions,” Paglia said in an interview with Connecticut Public Radio. He’s also the vice president of Amity’s Black Student Union. “Then, I had to go talk about it with my friends instead of asking the teachers.”
The two-minute video was shown to some, if not all, of Amity’s students on Feb. 17 in a homeroom-type workshop called “Spartan Seminar.”
Nazorine Ulysse, Sage Paglia’s mother, went to the school for an explanation shortly after it aired.
“There was an apology to me as if there should be an apology to me,” said Ulysse, who identifies as Haitian. “This isn’t about me. This is about the message you’re teaching in your school that is demoralizing to the Black students.”
Principal Anna Mahon referred questions to Superintendent Jennifer Byars, who provided a written statement.
“The main goal of the series was to promote inclusion and to encourage students and teachers to recognize implicit bias,” said Byars, superintendent of Amity Regional School District No. 5. “‘Spartan Seminar’ advisors accepted it after suggesting other celebrity videos. Students felt strongly [that] including the video would engage students in the discussion.”
Byars looks back on the decision differently now, but she defended the process.
“We recognize it was a mistake to show the Kanye West video, but we will continue to be respectful to the perspectives, objectives and goals of the students who commit the time to planning ‘Spartan Seminar,’” Byars said. “Planning a lesson that perfectly meets the needs of 1,500 students, delivered by 225 different teachers, in a world where high school is but one avenue to address local, national and global issues of implicit bias and racism is an unrealistic expectation. But we will keep trying.”
‘Out In The Daylight’
Earlier in the school year, administrators at Amity took pitches from students on how to teach others about implicit bias. The plan reportedly called for three lessons during a “Spartan Seminar,” Amity’s student advisory program. One group of students asked the program’s advisers if they could play a clip for students featuring a take on Black History Month from one of their “heroes,” rapper and fashion designer Kanye West. Byars said that some teachers knew the clip didn’t match the intent of the lesson, but they let the students show it anyway.
But for Paglia and others interviewed for this story, the issue is that the perspective in the Kanye West video was the only perspective offered.
“My problem is that there’s no education about Black history,” Paglia said. “You can’t put across the idea that the month of February, Black History Month, should be taken away if there’s no preliminary discussion.”
When he told his mother about what he saw in “Spartan Seminar,” Ulysse said she couldn’t believe it.
“First, I was questioning my son because I just can’t believe in 2021 -- out in the daylight -- they’re just totally being completely ignorant about it,” Ulysse said.
She says administrators are responsible for what the students see in class.
“Any message that gets out has been approved or been looked at somewhat by the administration or by the principal,” Ulysse said. “So if you let the message go out ... then you are supporting these bigoted ideas.”
Another parent complained directly to the school board in an email.
“The fact that lessons like these were allowed to be presented at Amity High School is a downright disgrace to our entire community and [does] not reflect a community that celebrates diversity and inclusion,” Heather Parady, a mother of three, wrote in a March 8 email. “I urge the board to consider ‘Leading with Racial Equity’ training for all teachers, staff and administration.”
As a student leader, Paglia said he also felt snubbed by the process. He and other students in Amity’s Black Student Union say they actually asked staff to lead a “Spartan Seminar.”
“Some of the ideas that we had for ‘Spartan Seminar’ were to address real issues that are going on instead of these vague topics -- instead of bias, focus on racism. Instead of discrimination, focus on discrimination of Black Americans or Asian Americans that’s actually going on,” Paglia said.
Ultimately, the school went with the kids who picked the Kanye video.
Byars dismisses Paglia’s account of a “Spartan Seminar” pitch, saying that the Black Student Union never made a formal proposal.
She says that moving forward, the school will be more proactive in how it engages Paglia and his classmates in the Black Student Union.
In a subsequent seminar two weeks after the Kanye class that slammed Black History Month, students who suggested playing the video were given a chance to explain.
“The group recorded a conversation about why they had made the choice to include Kanye West, even though he is controversial, in the first lesson,” Byars said. “The video was shown during the second ‘Spartan Seminar’ lesson, which was focused on identifying implicit biases based on stereotypes.”
Parents shared that video with Connecticut Public, but Byars won’t consent to its use because she says it was recorded in violation of district policies. Parents of the students involved declined to comment, and one threatened legal action if their child was identified without their consent.
But that second, five-minute seminar didn’t get to the question of why Black History Month should be celebrated. And that, again, left parents frustrated.
Emily Melnick, the mother of an Amity sophomore, said she saw the videos and expected more from the adults.
“We don’t hear two sides,” Melnick said. “How about having a dialogue about why it would be important for these predominantly white children to be learning about Black history?”
While the school didn’t run a counterpoint to the Kanye West video during the lesson, the school superintendent is pointing to other ways the high school observed Black History Month -- including classes in art, band, English and social studies.
Still, Melnick says that the West video and the response to it don’t reflect the values of the community she wants to live in.
“We want this to be a community that is desirable for people from all backgrounds, all races and all classes,” Melnick said.
Connecticut Public reached out to the Amity school board chair, but he didn’t respond to a request for comment.