Our Students Are Watching: A Message from Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez & Our Board of Education

Our Students Are Watching: A Message from Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez & Our Board of Education

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To our students, families, staff, partners, and community:

You may have heard about this incident on the news. On Friday September 20, a Guilford High School student showed up to a football game against Hartford Public High School in blackface. He was stopped by a Guilford School Resource Officer and they had him remove the face paint.

On Monday September 23, we were made aware that this incident occurred, the Guilford High School Principal and Athletic Director contacted Hartford Public High School to apologize, and the Guilford Superintendent released a statement addressing the issue.

Dating back to the 1830s, blackface has long been used to stereotype and demean African Americans. This harmful caricature of black appearance, language, and culture persists today in mass media and in the rise of “black” Halloween costumes worn by students on college and university campuses. Though perpetrators of blackface often deny intent to harm, this form of stereotyping undermines the sense of safety and worth that all our students deserve.

We do not believe that the Guilford student had any interaction with our students. However, we will continue to take all precautions and measures necessary to maintain the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of every individual in our buildings. Our District Model for Excellence’s major priority on School Climate & Culture is to guarantee that all students feel safe, valued, and respected. We are proud and celebrate our diversity.

I, along with the Hartford Board of Education, have both written official responses to the recent incident that occurred in Guilford, Connecticut. You may read those responses below.

— Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools

Our Students Are Watching, and Our Students Deserve Better, Op-Ed by Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Hartford Courant, Sunday, October 13, 2019

As superintendent for Hartford Public Schools, and as a mother of two young men and students of color, I was disheartened — but determined to act — when I heard the news; another Connecticut student had appeared in blackface. This time it was a Guilford High School student who showed up to a football game against our Hartford Public High School team.

One student does not represent an entire school or community. We know that. But the reality is that this is not the first incident in Connecticut targeted at students in recent years. Thankfully, this student was prevented from inflicting harm on our students by a responsible adult in the form of a resource officer.

Centuries after the first African slaves were captured, bound, tortured and killed to help build America and then our new nation, the racist legacies of dehumanization still manifest both openly and in subtle ways within our daily lives. It’s not enough to be angry or hurt — though I experienced both emotions. Instead, we must choose to lift up our students and fellow adults when they exemplify positive change.

To borrow Langston Hughes’ words, “I, too, am America.” Our children are your children and vice versa. We have a responsibility to stand up for all of our students, just like that resource officer did at that football game. Adults — teachers, administrators, staff, families, community, faith-based and higher education partners, elected officials, business community members — have an opportunity to lead, and we must make the most of it.

As superintendent, I can attest that the board and I value equity, diversity and inclusion. We are in the business of educating and harnessing the inherent brilliance that each one of our beautiful and capable students brings to us. In order to maintain the integrity of such values, we must check our conscious and unconscious biases by first acknowledging that we have them. We must learn about ourselves and others. Then, we must commit to action.

In Hartford Public Schools, that means treating each and every student with dignity in a physically, emotionally, and intellectually healthy and safe environment; that each and every student will be supported by culturally responsive teaching and learning and positive and supportive relationships; and that each and every student will have voice and agency and be prepared for college, career and civic life. It’s that simple.

But simple in concept can be complicated in practice.

Inclusivity takes continuous work. When we gather only with our own, with people that look like us, we lose the opportunity to learn about others. When we stay in our comfort zones, we exclude opinions, cultures and traditions that are equally a part of the fabric of America. But we can choose to bring our whole selves to our larger communities to both learn and share ways to create stronger bonds and deeper connections.

That’s the Hartford, Greater Hartford, and Connecticut we deserve.

We unequivocally believe that our education community is better because of each of its members. We seek to understand both our commonalities and the ideas, backgrounds, interests and views that make us unique and to create an environment where each individual — child and adult — is respected, connected and valued.

It all starts with each one of us. We all came here at different times with varying tolerances of racist or biased behaviors and beliefs. But it’s time to take both individual and collective responsibility. What do we know about our history? What can we learn about the history of others? How can we use our privilege for good?

As policymakers and culture builders in our cities, towns and homes, we must also stand up against the legacies of racism in our schools, housing and every other facet of society. We can create a region that values everyone when we choose to speak up and reach out.

I strive to model the practices that I expect to see in our schools and city by speaking out against marginalizing behaviors and racist policies. To those who still choose to engage in hurtful actions or remain silent when witnessing the inappropriate actions of others, it is not okay. We all live here, and our children are watching how we choose to live.

Leslie Torres-Rodriguez is the superintendent of public schools in Hartford. She is a graduate of Hartford Public Schools, earned her bachelor’s in human development and Master of Social Work degrees from the University of Connecticut, and received a Doctor of Educational Leadership from Central Connecticut State University.


Every day as the Board of Education for Hartford Public Schools, we bring our whole selves to our leadership roles. We are parents. We are clergy. We are social workers. We are your neighbors and colleagues. As your education partners, we are ready to move Hartford forward together toward diversity, equity and inclusion so all our students feel safe and welcomed.

While the news media cover recent stories of openly racist behavior exacted at students of color, we know there are more — out in the open or behind closed doors — that don’t make the headlines. We know that some of these behaviors begin as conscious and unconscious biases. We all have them. The difference is in how we use them. This time, this moment, can be our opportunity as adults to model how we want our students to be treated within our schools and beyond.

We simply cannot stand by while the racist legacies of the past remain in policies or resurrect in the actions of children and adults. We must stand up for our children, ourselves. This takes the form of equity in budgets where money is directed to the schools with the most needs. It takes the form of learning about our history and that of others. And, it takes the form of being courageous enough to unlearn opinions or dismantle racist policies that harm others.

We know it takes a village to raise a child. We invite all families, churches, community organizations, elected officials, schools of higher education, and businesses to join our Hartford Public School village. We can value every difference and commonality. We can seek to understand. We can listen more than we speak. And, when we make a mistake, we can learn from it. We are on this journey as a village — together.

While we cannot control or determine how our students are treated outside of our schools, we can continue to create an education experience where each and every Hartford Public Schools student will be treated with dignity in a physically, emotionally, and intellectually healthy and safe environment; where each and every student will be supported by culturally responsive teaching and learning and positive and supportive relationships; and where each and every student will have voice and agency and be prepared for college, career, and civic life. It’s the Hartford way. Join us.

Julio Flores, Chairman of the Board


Julio Flores, Chairman of the Board

Juan M. Hernandez, Vice-Chair

Kimberly D. Oliver, Second Vice-Chair

Ayesha R. Clarke, Secretary

Shontá Browdy

Leslie Paguada

Craig T. Stallings

Karen T. Taylor

Cristina Santiago, Liaison to the Board of Education

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