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Winchester High School student suspended in graffiti incident directed at Armenian community

Winchester school officials say a student has been suspended in a graffiti incident that took place on March 29. FILE PHOTO

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Winchester school officials this week have suspended a student responsible for hateful graffiti directed at the Armenian community that was discovered on a whiteboard at the High School on March 29.

Winchester Police Department conducted an investigation into the matter.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Hackett declined to speak on any additional discipline for the accused student due to confidentiality, but called the incident “unfortunate.”

“We work very hard as a school system to make sure our students understand that anything regarding hate speech or graffiti is not tolerated,” he said.

Hackett said there is always work to do and that no one is ever done learning, but it’s important that behaviors are changed and perspectives broadened.

“We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome in our schools,” he said.

‘It’s important to remember that hate speech and hate symbology can never be taken casually or lightly, in any capacity. These words and actions will never be OK.’ — WHS Principal Dennis Mahoney

The incident

A source at the school, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said the incident started with a student drawing a mountain on a whiteboard during a study hall that made reference to Mount Ararat and its Armenian heritage. The student then reportedly wrote a racial slur in large letters over the drawing.

The Armenian community’s cultural identity and history are marked by tragedies, such as the Armenian Genocide. Armenian Americans have sometimes been targeted by individuals or groups who harbor prejudices, engage in stereotyping or seek to marginalize and discriminate against minority communities.

During and after the Armenian Genocide, which occurred in the Ottoman Empire from 1914 to 1923 and resulted in 1.5 million deaths, Massachusetts was one of the U.S. states that provided refuge and support to Armenian survivors and immigrants fleeing the atrocities.

Many Armenian communities were established throughout Massachusetts cities, such as Boston, Worcester and Watertown, which now has one of the largest Armenian populations in the United States.

Armenia is part of the Caucasus region and is bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan to the south. Yerevan is the capital, largest city and financial center. COURTESY PHOTO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

WHS Principal Dennis Mahoney sent out a letter to the school community stating, “Winchester High School has zero tolerance for hate speech, hate symbology and or acts of bigotry in any format, period, and we condemn hate speech, hate symbology and acts of bigotry of any kind in the strongest terms possible.”

The school thanked the student and family who reported the incident and acknowledged the swift response of the Police Department and WHS staff in ensuring the safety of all students.

Mahoney also addressed the student body in an email, stating, “It’s important to remember that hate speech and hate symbology can never be taken casually or lightly, in any capacity. These words and actions will never be OK.”

Hackett forwarded Mahoney’s letter to the wider school community, reiterating the same message.

“While his message addresses a specific incident at WHS, acts of hatred or bigotry affect our entire school community and have no place in any of our schools,” Hackett wrote. “We embrace our diversity, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our children, staff, and families feel safe, respected, and valued. Everyone belongs in the Winchester Public Schools.”

Reactions

The incident has raised concerns about the prevalence of hate speech and intolerance within the community.

Rebecca Slisz, interim executive director of the Network for Social Justice, a local organization promoting diversity and inclusion, commented on the impact of such incidents.

“As with any incident of hate speech, we reflect on the impact such words or symbols have on the targeted individuals or community,” she said. “We support the prompt and strong message sent by WHS leadership, and shared by the administration with the broader WPS community, that this kind of behavior is not tolerated. We join with the district in valuing and celebrating our community's diversity.”

WHS officials have called upon the community to join their efforts in addressing these concerns by discussing the importance of reporting any incidents of hate speech or bigotry to the school.

Mahoney offered support to students who wish to process the incident further.

“If anyone would like to process this announcement or this incident further today or next week, you should feel free to come to the main office, the guidance office or speak to one of your trusted adults in our building,” he wrote. “Our doors will be open.”

Officials noted the incident highlights the need for communities to engage in dialogue, education, and proactive measures to combat hate speech and promote understanding and respect for all individuals.

“Each of us has a shared responsibility to make WHS a safe and welcoming place for all students,” Mahoney said.

Winchester News editor Nell Escobar Coakley contributed to this report.

Winchester News is a non-profit organization supported by our community. If you appreciate having local Winchester news, please donate to support our work, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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