This article was originally published in the March 1, 2019 issue of The Review.
Skylar Williams was in her AP English class when the notifications from her African-American Affinity Group chat began popping up on her phone just after 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4.
“Can someone please explain?”
“Did anyone screenshot?”
“We should go to admin.”
The news was so disturbing that she broke down in the middle of class.
There had been a Snapchat post likening the AAAG assembly to a slave auction. The details were unclear. No one had a screenshot of the post, but several people had seen it — or knew someone who had supposedly seen it.
After school, Williams and members of AAAG gathered in the halls of the Science Building, then a few members went to administrative offices to report the incident.
Just a few hours earlier, at 11 a.m., AAAG had hosted an assembly commemorating Black History Month in which they discussed what it means to be black at St. John’s and how to negate common stereotypes.
Organized by Williams and Jordan Fullen, both juniors, the program featured student anecdotes, discussions about identity and a dance.
According to AAAG co-sponsor Kim Roquemore (’87), this assembly never would have happened back when she attended St. John’s: “The students were so genuine and so vulnerable, and they spoke their heart out. I was very nervous for them.”
The dancers had been rehearsing since winter break. Choreographed by senior Lena McZeal, junior Subi Farayibi and Williams, the dance featured a combination of hip-hop and Afrobeats, including a mash-up of Drake’s “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings,” Young Thug’s “Now,” K Camp’s “Drop” and DJ KEROZEN’s “La Victoire.”
The goal of the choreographers was to invalidate the stereotype that African-Americans only dance to hip-hop.
“It was a perfect balance of grace and strength,” Head of Upper School Hollis Amley said. “It was a beautiful performance.”
Unbeknownst to the dancers, a freshman student was posting a photo of the dancers on a private Snapchat story with the caption, “yo auction lit.”
Just a few minutes later, four students took the stage to share their experiences as African-Americans. The last speaker was AAAG co-President Genson Hooper-Price, who shared a heart-wrenching story from his freshman year. A senior he did not know had posted an image on Snapchat in which a filter had accentuated the size of his nose and lips.
The caption read, “Look, I’m Genson.”
Although Hooper-Price did nothing about it then, he encouraged the entire Upper School to report the next incident in which somebody makes an insensitive or offensive comment.
It didn’t take long for his words to be put into action.
Although the racist post was deleted before the assembly had even ended, some faculty members and over 30 students from different grade levels and racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds reported the post. After witnessing the initial reaction, Amley said that there was a “strength and conviction amongst the students and faculty” like she had never seen before.
That afternoon was extraordinarily emotional for many.
“It was my first time experiencing anything racist directly, so when it happened, I broke,” Williams said. “It was heartbreaking because it felt like the post threw the meaning behind our assembly in the trash.”
Freshman Joseph DePinho, who was friends with the student who posted the Snapchat, recalls that the incident made ninth-grade students feel “shocked and anxious.”
DePinho expressed that there were many angry classmates who wanted to confront the student and the administration.
“No one sided with [the student],” DePinho said. “It’s just different because I know that I’m never going to see [the student] ever again.”
On Tuesday morning, roughly 12 hours later, administrators met with Upper School faculty to provide an update on the situation and discussed the reports they had received.
At the end of the school day, at 3:35 p.m., administrators met with faculty once again to notify them that, after conducting what Headmaster Mark Desjardins described as “a detail-oriented process… it was determined that this student could no longer remain in our community.”
At 4:22 p.m., the School sent a letter from Desjardins to the entire School community, which read, “This incident was an egregious violation of St. John’s community values and standards of conduct. There is simply no place at St. John’s for those individuals who are not willing to commit toward helping build a culture that upholds, honors, and supports the ideals of empathy, respect, care, and inclusion.”
Amley followed up with an email to Upper School parents and students at 7:39 that evening, announcing a gathering for the Upper School the following day to discuss the “racist and bigoted” incident.
Later that night, members of AAAG collaborated on a Google Doc to write a speech for the assembly. Ultimately, AAAG thought it best that three of the dancers, Williams, Farayibi and freshman Eliot Aiman, should deliver the speech.
At the assembly on Feb. 6, Amley began by acknowledging past incidents of racial insensitivity that were not handled with as much communication and conversation as this incident. Gene Batiste, Director of Community and Inclusion, then recounted a time in elementary school when his father told him that he was the “biggest, blackest thing in the room.” This episode left an “indelible impression” on Batiste that he “must always be mindful of the complexity of being black in America.”
Finally, 48 hours after the performance in which they had been compared to slaves, the three girls returned to the VST stage and reiterated the importance of their initial message.
“I wanted to — as quickly as possible — reclaim that space as an Upper School community and to denounce the offensive action publicly,” Amley said. “There was a solemn and somber tone amongst the students and teachers that was really powerful. There was truly a reverence in that moment for appreciating the severity of what had happened, for the AAAG assembly and for the SJS community.”
The next day, a rainy Thursday, approximately 200 students packed into the Chao Room for a forum to promote dialogue about diversity and inclusion on campus.
“I’m so proud of Unity Council and AAAG for co-sponsoring the largest forum ever in Upper School history,” Batiste said. “Maybe it was serendipitous that we were not able to be out on the plaza because of rain: Being forced into Chao and the Gallery gave us a bit more intimacy to have those awakening moments.”
Batiste said that more uncomfortable dialogue will be instrumental in cultural education.
“Moving forward, it’s going to be those person-to-person interactions that will really be more effective than large-scale talks,” he said. “It’s very difficult to just not care when you’re talking one-to-one or in a small group situation.”
Concurrently, the Middle School hosted a forum in which two dozen seventh- and eighth-grade students discussed the incident.
“It was a healthy session,” Head of Middle School Philip Cannon said. “In talking with a couple of schools that have affinity groups in Middle School, Dr. Batiste and I learned that the initial catalyst for their formation came from the students. Our sense from this forum is that some of our students do want such a safe setting in which to process and discuss these issues. What specific form that may take going forward has yet to be determined.”
In the fall of 2016, the Upper School experienced four unrelated, racially insensitive incidents over the span of two weeks involving students, parents and faculty.
Though each situation was addressed, Amley said that “there was reservation among students, faculty and administration” in initiating a forum to discuss the events.
“We didn’t have the structural apparatus to handle the conversation in a productive way,” Amley said. “At the time, we did not have as much of a forum culture — when Unity Council hosted one, 15 to 20 attendees was considered a decent turnout.”
Although no formal discussions were scheduled, the School brought in experts to train faculty, administrators and student leaders in creating thoughtful discussion.
Since then, Batiste was hired in 2017, Unity Council has increased its presence on campus and the “forum culture” has drastically improved.
At the 2018 freshman retreat, the School also led a “cultural competency” workshop to help ninth-grade students understand terminology that surrounds the discussion of diversity and realize how strongly the community values inclusion.
Most recently, at the All-School Chapel on Friday, Feb. 1, Batiste and Unity Council presented the new Statement on Community and Inclusion, which emphasizes the importance of respecting differences and establishing a loving environment for members of the community.
According to Batiste, the timing of the Snapchat post — occurring so soon after two events designed specifically to celebrate diversity — only strengthens the importance of the Statement and marks a turning point for inclusion on campus.
“The work that we’ve done over the last 18 months with our Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism from the National Association of Independent Schools, our new Statement, the role that I have the honor of holding, the training that we’ve done for student leaders to facilitate and lead difficult conversations, the strengthening of affinity groups — all those things are components of a new day,” he said.
Batiste also said that the community’s response to the incident sets a new precedent for how to respond to hurtful actions or comments for administrators, faculty and students.
“Moving forward, if there is an infraction on our Statement of Community and Inclusion that impacts our community, there are consequences for those actions,” he said. “Part of the process of reconciling this incident needs to include restorative justice with grace. It’s about doing what’s right for students who have been harmed, and it’s also about doing what’s right because of what we value as a community.”
Many students have commended the administration’s transparency in dealing with the situation.
“That’s a really important part of the situation: acknowledging to the greater community that this is an issue,” senior Sara Lichtarge said. “I also really liked that Dr. Desjardins used the actual quote of what the student said in the email because there’s nothing that speaks to the racism like the actual quote itself. I’m just glad that the administration was not trying to dilute the impact of that student’s words.”
The aftermath of the incident has seen many students share their own stories of insensitivity or discrimination and how they have affected them, magnifying the sense of empathy and community on campus.
“Not only have people been sharing their own stories, but people have been sharing their mistakes,” Amley said. “That’s a major sign of growth. They’ve acknowledged times when they didn’t upstand, they’ve admitted to when they laughed nervously at something they knew wasn’t funny and they’ve acknowledged times when they were silent or turned a blind eye so that they didn’t have to step up. Two or three years ago, people would not have been able to be aware of missed opportunities [to report] because they wouldn’t have known they should have done something.”
The incident also raised important questions about how to treat future incidents. Lichtarge considered whether the action will set a precedent for smaller forms of aggression.
“These kinds of incidents happen all the time and just aren’t reported en masse,” she said. “What is St. John’s going to do to make sure that those smaller incidents are taken care of? They don’t have to be incredibly large, grievous remarks about the whole community in order to still be offensive.”
Lichtarge has experienced hostility toward her Jewish heritage. Last summer, someone made a Holocaust joke, which she did not report because she “didn’t want people to think that one passing comment” had a significant effect on her.
She suggests that creating a system in which students can anonymously report incidents would be an important step in establishing a safe community.
Also concerning to Lichtarge is that any student could feel safe enough to post something so offensive online, especially on a platform followed by other St. John’s students.
“It really meant that it wasn’t just an isolated incident of one person being racist,” she said. “It’s indicative of a much larger problem here at St. John’s. If you want to truly fix what’s happening, you need to understand that it is a large problem.”
According to Skylar Williams, cultural education must begin before high school in order for it to be impactful since the brains of Lower and Middle School students are still developing and absorbing everything they can. Batiste and other administrators have been working with the Middle School for roughly a year analyzing the viability of implementing affinity groups.
Although Middle School administrators initially intended for affinity groups to be instituted this spring, they were postponed in order to ensure that the strategic planning surrounding faculty sponsorship and training could be further studied.
Roquemore acknowledges the challenge of introducing affinity groups to Middle School students who are still discovering their own identity.
“It was on the back burner, but now, after this incident, it’s back on the front burner for the Middle School,” Batiste said.
Discussions are ongoing with Lower School administrators on ways to deal with racial identity moving forward.
In order to create a more inclusive and understanding environment, Batiste noted that there must be a shift in mindset from the School community when thinking about the hardships of minorities and underrepresented people.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘That’s about them,’ rather than, ‘This is about us as a community,’” he said. “It’s about dealing with the immediate situation and seeing how that impacts the entire School community. One thing we can get past is this whole ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing, which I find very troubling — to think that it’s about ‘them’ and not have to be concerned about it.”
Batiste emphasized the need for diversity education to originate from the School rather than from minority students. He reflected on one African-American student who told him, “I feel it’s my job to not just be a student here but to educate others about my experience.”
He added that students of the majority culture should strive to educate themselves about diversity.
“That’s such a burden to put on anybody who’s underrepresented, whether it be by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin or gender expression,” Batiste said. “That’s just really unfair.”
Continuing this year, the longer advisory periods have been designed for social-emotional learning skills such as empathy, which is an important step in understanding inclusion.
Amley also said that administrators are organizing a forum for the entire Upper School to facilitate further discussions. The plan is to hold several simultaneous forums, each with a different topic, and allow students to join the one they’re most interested in.
Amley hopes that this kind of forum would happen once this year and would be implemented more frequently next year.
“This structure allows you to pick the topic you want to talk about and be around people you feel more comfortable with,” Amley said. “It also provides an opportunity for those who might not be inclined to go to a forum just to practice being in a forum, setting community norms, speaking from the ‘I’ perspective and listening to other people’s stories. The hope is that as we do these more often, more students — over time — will gain skills to find their voice and use it in difficult conversations.”
As soon as news of the incident began to spread, Williams said that teachers she did not even know were sending her supportive emails and her “phone was blowing up” with lengthy text messages.
“Everyone was really nice about it,” she said. “I didn’t expect that at all.”
There are similar stories of the community coming together and expressing their frustrations, but for many students who were not directly impacted, it has been difficult to determine how they can help.
“That’s something I really struggle with,” Lichtarge said. “I want to be there for everyone who’s being emotionally impacted in any way by how insensitive someone’s words can be. A lot of times I’m afraid to say something.”
Several members of AAAG and Upper School counselor Ashley Le Grange said that the most important thing is to listen.
“Be able to say, ‘I might not understand, but I can still be there for you and know that it hurts,’” Le Grange said. “It’s important not to jump to solutions because you can’t fix something that you don’t understand. The power of listening has been huge.”
For students who have been affected and need help, Le Grange said that she and any adult on campus is a resource. She can also refer students to professional resources.
“Have empathy. Continue to be open-minded. Have empathy.”