NYC Catholic School Students and Alumni Share Stories of Discrimination — and Demand Change

NYC Catholic School Students and Alumni Share Stories of Discrimination — and Demand Change
St Edmund Prep. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

By Christine Chung, originally published in THE CITY

Some New York City Catholic schools have responded to the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd with YouTube videos of prayers, statements of solidarity and black squares on social media.

But students and alumni of some Catholic institutions in Queens and Brooklyn, under the umbrella of the Diocese of Brooklyn, say these gestures fall short — and that the schools must first look inward to address what they describe as longstanding cultures of racism and discrimination.

Galvanized by Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter protests in response, current students and alumni from five schools — Archbishop Molloy, Mary Louis Academy, St. Edmund Preparatory High School, St. Agnes Academic High School and St. Francis Preparatory School — have taken to social media to share personal accounts of mistreatment and demand change.

The overarching message: Students of color, LGBT students and others outside the cultural mainstream were not respected, were not seen as equal, weren’t seen by the schools charged with educating them, and that they still aren’t.

Current students at The Mary Louis Academy, an all-girls school in Jamaica Estates, said that it’s as if the school has been frozen in time. They described being prohibited from bringing other females as their prom dates, having their hairstyles policed, being accused of theft without evidence or investigation — and not receiving academic honors despite putting in the hard work.

“They don’t want to accept what’s going out in the outside world and adjust it. It’s not just racism, it’s LGBT issues, current issues in general,” said one 16-year-old rising senior who lives in Jamaica. “I feel like they shut that down, when someone wants to voice their opinion, and I just don’t like that.”

None of the five schools — Molloy High School, the Mary Louis Academy, St. Agnes Academic High School, St. Francis, and St. Edmund Prep — responded to emails seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Diocese noted the schools are independently operated.

Alumni at the various schools say experiences like these are nothing new.

One 23-year-old woman from Midwood, Brooklyn, who graduated in 2014 from St. Edmund Preparatory High School in Homecrest, said remarks some faculty made stuck with her.

Like the time, she recalled, when a homeroom teacher asked the Caribbean students to raise their hands, and then proceeded to ask what herbs to burn to “get rid of bad spirits.”

She noted another occasion when she flicked her hair away from her face while talking to a fellow student, and a teacher came screaming to accuse her of passing drugs. She says she was sent to the assistant principal’s office, and never received an apology.

Slurring Emmett Till

Five years ago, a white student in DaeQuan Morrison’s English class at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood read from a journal entry that he wanted to “hang a n—– by the neck like Emmett Till,” Morrison said. The student received an in-school suspension, a punishment equivalent to being cited for having hair deemed too long, according to Morrison.

In the current school year, 9% of the nearly 1,500 students at Molloy are black — compared with 26% in the New York City public schools

Dom Paynter, who graduated in 2012, still remembers the disgusted looks they’d get while performing traditional dances as a member of the Caribbean Culture Club at The Mary Louis Academy. In the current school year, 16% of the students there are black.

Current seniors of The Mary Louis Academy are circulating a petition to demand change in the realms of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” More than 3,000 people had signed as of Sunday evening. “Enough is enough, this school is racist,” one comment reads.

“The overt racism, the covert racism, the microaggressions that have gone on in school,” said a 23-year-old former student at The Mary Louis Academy who wished to remain anonymous but has signed and circulated the petition. “In effect, we felt we weren’t heard.”

She recalled when a teacher expressed surprise that her parents were able to afford the venue for her Sweet 16 celebration.

Another time, an administrator put her fingers in the student’s face to silence her. The student asked her not to do so. The next day, the student was called into the office and was told the educator had said, “I seemed threatening, that I had the look of the devil in my eye.”

“There’s a reason for the class of 1980 and 2003 to say, ‘Hey, I’ve experienced this’ and the Class of 2019 to say ‘Yeah, it hasn’t changed,’” the former student added.

Deprived of Channels

Alumni of the five schools complained that as students, they had no effective way to report incidents of discrimination, bias or racism committed by faculty, staff or fellow students. Some said their parents’ attempts to quell bad behavior by peers and faculty failed.

One 22-year-old St. Edmund Prep alum, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled when they and their sibling were the only two black students to try out for one of the school’s basketball teams. They were among the few who didn’t make it.

Their father argued their case, and they were placed on the team. But when the siblings missed one practice because of a doctor’s appointment, they were cut from the roster.

“There’s been millions of times where we’d get in trouble, which really just made us feel like we were being singled out,” the former student said. “We just felt like the teachers never had our backs, we were always getting yelled at, my friends getting suspended. If the same situation happened between the white kids, they’d be back within a day.”

“We all paid the same amount of money to be there.”

Tuition at St. Edmund Prep for the 2020-2021 school year is roughly $12,000.

At St. Francis, a graduate of the class of 2009 has created a dedicated account to chronicle the “injustices” of the school. One anonymous post reads that “a white student had said for Halloween they wanted to go to Corona and wear an ICE uniform and scare all the illegals.”

Another describes getting a can thrown at their head after holding hands with a friend and being called a f—– by a fellow student.

Leila Baum, 19, who graduated from Molloy High School in 2016, said that “part of the scary thing” was that teachers were frequently the perpetrators of racial insensitivity.

When she was 12, she and her peers were watching a Christmas video in class, which depicted a bunch of kids, including one black girl, singing. Her teacher said to the entire class that she resembled the young black girl.

“The students got so bold because they realized the teachers felt the same way as they did,” Baum said.

She said her time at Molloy showed her that the world would treat her differently. She graduated at just 15 years old and is now pursuing a career as a singer.

“Telling your students, you don’t condone racism and almost every day you’re seeing it,” Baum said. “It made me not speak. It made me placate myself for the benefit of somebody else. They made us feel less than…. That was the message, we were lucky enough to be there. We sit there and we shouldn’t say anything or do too much or cause too much noise because we are lucky enough just to be there.”

Lessons in Humiliation

Four alumnae of Caribbean descent who graduated from St. Agnes in 2016 told THE CITY, on the condition of anonymity, that their ideas, such as forming a Caribbean culture club, were repeatedly shot down. They said they were told by faculty that a Multicultural Club already existed.

In the school year now coming to an end, St. Agnes, in College Point, had 22 black students out of a student body of 200, according to state data.

“I think they wanted us to be included in what they already had and not acknowledge that we were different from the rest of the class,” one 23-year-old woman said. “Everything was always just a straight ‘No.’”

They said that the education they received was taxed with humiliations. An art teacher mispronounced another 23-year-old former student’s name for two years, the woman recalled.

“I take pride in my name that my mom gave me. My name is one of a black Afro-Caribbean person,” she said. “I used to dread her calling my name, was she going to say it correctly? It was to the point where she called me the name of a different black girl in the group.”

Absent Teachers

The graduating class of 2016 had zero black teachers and only a handful of other faculty of color during their years at St. Agnes, the alumnae said.

Students from the Class of 2015 at Mary Louis also recalled no black teachers. One said the only black people employed by the school were the two custodial staff.

Dozens of former Catholic school students told THE CITY that more diversity among faculty  would have helped them navigate predominantly white schools. Paynter recalls a black teacher who taught physics at Mary Louis. Just seeing him in the hall was a comfort, she said.

“I know for at least the black community of Mary Louis, [there were] a lot of microaggressions from the top down. From the principal to the rest of the administration, faculty and the students. Just constant things about hair, about how you’re wearing your clothes, the worst things to hear for a teenage girl on top of being black in a school that’s majority white,” she said.

“Not only we were not represented, I feel like our culture wasn’t represented and I feel like just moving on for the school, they should be more aware of it and diversity in the school,” one 23-year-old former student of St. Agnes said. “Take advantage of your diversity, it’s not a bad thing.”

“Using God as an Excuse”

Multiple schools, including Molloy High School and St. Edmund Prep, quickly revised initial public responses crafted following George Floyd’s death, after students swarmed social media to criticize statements deemed half-baked and disingenuous.

Molloy’s Tuesday statement made no mention of Floyd or the black community. Logan Boldeau, 21, a 2016 graduate, said it read as if it were merely “copied and pasted” from somewhere else.

“It didn’t address what happened in the real world, it only addressed Molloy,” said Boldeau, of Long Island. “It was completely not heartfelt, it was basically a promo for the school itself.”

After his experiences there, which he described as marked by homophobia and microaggressions, he said he would strongly discourage students of color from attending.

When Molloy students and alumni erupted on Facebook and Instagram, the school shut down the comment sections on both platforms.

Morrison said that he was struck by the sheer number of commenters, by students who were “coming out and saying their first experiences with how systematic racism is born and perpetuated was in that classroom.”

Baum said that with the statement, the school was exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement. The elimination of the comments section amounted to being silenced again, she added.

In a second statement, released Wednesday, administrators committed to forming a three-tiered action plan, including a diversity committee. The school did not respond to a request for comment for further details.

Mary Louis alumnae told THE CITY they were disappointed by the school’s initial statement, which pledges to “address and resolve the institutional racism which privileges some at the expense of others,” but fails to outline concrete next steps. Administrators shut down comments on the post. The school did not respond to a request for comment.

“We have the motto of ‘“unity, reconciliation and all inclusive love’” but I don’t see it,” said one 17-year-old rising senior from Ozone Park, who wished to remain anonymous.

Former students said that St. Agnes’ decision to post the lyrics of the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” without any mention of racism and discrimination, was misguided. St. Agnes did not respond to a request for comment.

“They’re using God as an excuse right now, instead of talking about how black people are dying,” one alumnae said.

John Quaglione, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn said that five high schools are “independent and not operated by the Diocese,” and are connected to the Diocese “mainly on a spiritual and religious guidance level.”

On the specific allegations of racism and discrimination at Molloy, Mary Louis, St. Edmund, St. Agnes and St. Francis, Quaglione said that “it is ignorant to believe that despite our best efforts, the evil of intolerance does not exist in schools.”

“We are all God’s people, committed to advancing His message of love and peace, and as such, the Diocese sees diversity in our schools as a strength. No matter your race, color, or origin, we are committed to offering the best educational foundation for each of our students so to prepare them for life.”

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