Canton Chants: First Hurt And Outrage – Now Educational Opportunity?

Photo credit: Thomas McDonald for The New York Times
Photo credit: Thomas McDonald for The New York Times

cantons chool logo
Bill Sarno/
First there were the chants, “Trump, Trump, Trump” from students at the predominantly white Canton High School aimed at basketball players from Hartford’s mostly black and Latino Classical Magnet School. This was followed by an apology from Canton, feelings of hurt and disbelief of such racial intolerance among Hartford students and now perhaps an opportunity to use the incident as an educational tool.
Immediately after the incident, the Hartford Public Schools received an apology from the principal of Canton High School and supportive messages from the suburban town’s students and families. Also, in a letter to the Hartford Courant, a Canton player wrote that he and his teammates were embarrassed by the behavior of what has been described as seven or eight students at the league tournament game.   It is not clear if any of the Canton students have faced consequences over their behavior. 
Both districts, however, are now attempting to turn what Classical Principal Zendralyn Gordon called an “unfortunate experience” into a constructive teaching opportunity. This process includes student meetings at both schools. In addition, there are conversations to have Canton students visit the Hartford magnet school for both a learning and a personal experience, said Pedro Zayas, the Hartford Public Schools director of communications and marketing.
Moreover, Hartford administrators are looking for the state association that oversees scholastic sports and the North Central Connecticut Conference, which includes both schools, to establish clear guidelines to forbid racial or political heckling and how such strictures would be implemented.
“The league’s approach is the key to all of this,” said Pedro Zayas, the Hartford Public Schools director of communications and marketing, more than a week after the incident, which took place in the Canton gym and marred the league tournament game won by Classical. He noted that at professional sports arenas, spectators who spout hateful messages are evicted from the arena and even arrested.
For the Hartford students, the taunting episode provided a stark and somewhat disheartening example or, in some cases, a reminder of how their understanding issues such as immigration and diversity can be different than that of students from the suburbs. Some reacted with outrage, disappointment and even surprise.
“Hearing about (the taunting) got you pretty mad,” said a 16-year-old Classical student who was born in South America, and commented under the pseudonym “John” because of his age and undocumented immigration status. John also said that the behavior of the Canton students added to his feeling of insecurity.
John’s older brother, Paul, who graduated from Classical last year and now is studying animation at a community college, said he was “upset” about the Canton incident and this is “not how they should treat other people.”
A major reason for the notoriety, including coverage in the notorious right wing Breitbart Report, is that the Canton students, by building their taunts around the name of a president with a harsh anti-immigrant agenda targeting millions of Latinos who lack the legal authorization to stay in this country, raised the specter of racial hatred.
The makeup of the Classical team, John said, reflects the diversity of Classical Magnet, which enrolls more than 700 students in grades six through twelve.  Most of the students are from Hartford, where blacks and Latinos are in the majority, but there are also students from about 40 other towns who participate in an annual lottery which determines admission to the city’s magnet schools.
Canton’s population is about 95 percent white with the high school slightly more diverse. Classical’s enrollment s is about 40 percent African American and 30 percent Latino. The Hartford school does not ask students their immigration status, according to Zayas, but students said there are several classmates who lack legal authorization to stay in this country who face a heightened risk of deportation under the Trump administration.
Although what repercussions might await or should be doled out to the seven or eight Canton students reportedly involved were not specifically discussed, John said at the very least an apology was due.
John did not attend the game but knows several team members and said that this display of “prejudice against the team was uncalled for.” The Classical players, according to John, were aware of the taunts, which made them “pretty mad” and “they were surprised, but not for long, and concentrated on what they had to do to win.”
The next day, Classical coach Reggie Tucker met with the players to discuss what had happened and how to deal with this type of heckling.
In addition, Gordon reaffirmed in a letter to parents that the Hartford Public Schools will take “every step necessary to ensure that our students and families are protected from physical harm and emotional harassment.”
Even before the Canton game, Hartford Public Schools was sensitive to the plight of undocumented students. The district had issued a statement in English and Spanish that it will protect immigrant children and their families from discrimination, harassment and fear mongering. “We will stand by them should they face adversity as a pillar of support, love, and respect,” the message stated.
John and Paul, who grew up in Hartford after arriving in the U.S. from Peru as young children and now live in West Hartford, were among a group of students who shared their reactions to the Canton incident while attending programs at the Center for Latino Progress on Park Street in Hartford. The activities included a meeting of “dreamers,” undocumented students who hope to stay in this country.
Maria Karas, a 2016 Classical graduate who now attends the University of Connecticut’s West Hartford campus, said that within the magnet school students, whether they are from Hartford or not, are accustomed to getting along with each other. She also said that the undocumented students tended to blend in with the rest of this population.
Karas, who is now a mentor at the Center for Latino Progress, said that Facebook posting from her Classical friends indicated she found many were disappointed by the Canton taunting.
A 17-year-old Bulkeley High School student who came to Connecticut from Haiti less than three years ago  said he has felt welcomed at this Hartford school,  which  he said has “so many different kids.” Located in the city’s south end, Bulkeley is among the city’s most diverse with a student body that includes blacks, Hispanics and many Eastern Europeans.
 A soccer player, the Haitian student also said he has treated with respect in games against suburban schools, to a large extent because these teams also tend to have a lot of foreigners.
The Canton taunting was not the first time Hartford athletes have been taunted in a game with a suburban school. Last year, fans of the Farmington girls basketball team chanted “SAT scores” during a game with Capital Prep, another magnet school. This resulted in Farmington school leaders attending a Hartford sponsored public forum on racism.
More recently, the relationship between the suburban school and Hartford’s Latino community has become brightened, according to Anthony Cherolis, program manager at the Center for Latino Progress. “The Farmington High School Spanish National Honor Society just raised $1,000 and they selected the Center’s teen programs as the recipient for that donation,” he said.