GOSHEN — Fairfield Community Schools leaders are in the process of establishing new safeguards as a way to better address issues of bigotry or cultural insensitivity within those schools.
The effort is in response to a video that surfaced on social media last month, in which a group of Fairfield Jr.-Sr. High School students were recorded making racist comments at the school.
A student first posted the clip to Snapchat around Aug. 23, showing himself and four other students at a cafeteria table making comments that included profanities with racial slurs or statements directed at people of color. A sixth student was also recorded, but told the camera he’s not a racist. From Snapchat, the video was shared to other social media sites, including Facebook and TikTok.
As social media users and residents reacted, Fairfield administrators responded.
Superintendent Randy Zimmerly, in a statement shortly after the video came out, described the words that were used as “racial, hurtful and grossly inappropriate.” He also expressed regret about the effect the content had on groups that were targeted and on the community.
Since then, the school corporation has been in the process of drafting initiatives aimed at better addressing racially insensitive attitudes.
“Our high school principal has implemented and is forming what he is calling impact groups,” Zimmerly said earlier this month.
The groups, he said, would focus on how students whose race was targeted by the slurs were affected and how the school can better support them, while also considering ways to prevent more similar incidents from occurring in the future. The groups would have a “broad base of participation,” Zimmerly said.
As those groups come together and leaders are identified, he said he is also forming a superintendent’s advisory council. That panel would consist of select people from outside the district with certain experiences and expertise who would further advise Zimmerly and also recommend ideas, such as special programs and modifications.
Zimmerly couldn’t provide a time frame for about how long these new initiatives would take to form or when they would launch. He indicated best approaches have to be considered. He also urged patience while steps of due diligence are being taken.
“We have to get away from the emotion of the situation so that we can make meaningful improvements,” Zimmerly said. “A rush based on emotion is not what is of benefit to anybody.”
Zimmerly, who has viewed the video, said he could not comment on the investigation into it, the students involved, and the results from the investigation.
Shortly after the video showed up on social media, and then subsequently reported on by The Goshen News, several people posted reactions and comments that indicated the recording of the video was not an isolated incident at Fairfield. Some responses indicated the posters had seen or experienced incidents of racism or discrimination at the school, either as students or as the parents of students, over numerous years.
The Goshen News reached out to several commenters, seeking an elaboration of their statements. A few declined to be interviewed, while other messages went unreturned. Former Fairfield Superintendent Steve Thallheimer also declined to comment.
One local woman spoke up though. Dedra Thomas alleged she had experiences of discrimination as both a student and a parent.
Thomas said she attended Fairfield as a freshman in the mid-1990s. Around that time, Thomas said she also had a Black boyfriend who attended Elkhart Central High School.
Thomas said one day her boyfriend was seen picking her up from Fairfield. Shortly afterward, she alleged her family was asked to withdraw her from the school, and her struggling academic performance was cited as the reason. She admitted she wasn’t the best student then, but she questions the timing of the decision.
“It wasn’t an issue until he came up to the school,” Thomas said.
She later moved out of state and then returned to this area in 2016, as a mother with children. Thomas said a relative recommended placing her oldest son in Fairfield, and she was told diversity had improved at the school.
Her son, who she described as mixed-race and seen as Black, experienced bullying and harassment while at the school, she alleged.
“He was getting called the N-word,” Thomas said. “Teachers weren’t defending him. It was a bad situation. I was very very disappointed.”
After a couple months, Thomas said she pulled her son out of Fairfield and placed him at Goshen High School. He’s since graduated and attends a university in Indiana, she said.
Thomas said she believes part of the problem has been Fairfield staff haven’t made much attempt to cease racial bullying and harassment among students. She alleged teachers wouldn’t intervene if students used slurs or made racial comments, which she feels emboldened those students to continue the behavior.
Thomas also believes the attitudes among certain students were carried into the school.
“I think the saddest part about it, it’s not coming from the schools,” Thomas said. “It’s what the children are learning at home. It’s learned behavior.”
Thomas said she didn’t watch the new video when it sparked controversy on social media last month, adding she didn’t, “have the stomach for it.”
Zimmerly said the district does need to improve, and that school leaders are working to address the attitudes expressed in the video in order to provide a safe environment for children who attend school in the system.
“We need to improve, and I don’t think anyone has any desire other than that — Let’s try to improve,” Zimmerly said. “Any kind of, I think, meaningful step deserves to be thought through. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take our time. We’re going to think through it. We’re going to make sure that we move forward.”