Every school, private or public, has to address how racism affects the lives of its students. And schools can’t know that without hearing and heeding their students.
The Atlanta International School is hearing from its African American students and alums via a newly created Instagram page. The “BlackatAIS” page was set up so alums, current students and parents could share their experiences as a black person attending the Atlanta private school that has long made diversity a top priority.
The school’s website states:
We believe that a cohesive community of individuals from many backgrounds — socio-economic, ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, religious and sexual orientation — provides the ideal setting for the development of respect and understanding and helps prepare students to thrive, collaborate, and innovate in an increasingly global, interconnected world.
In his response to the testimonials of students and alums, Atlanta International School headmaster Kevin Glass said:
First, I am sorry. I am sorry for the racist conduct that our students and alums of color have endured in our school that I lead. The buck stops on my desk and I take ultimate responsibility for failing to create a school community which fully lives up to the words of our mission. My words of apology feel like very little against the pain of the words shared on Black@AIS.
Scott Britton, the incoming president of the board of trustees, issued a statement, saying, “I’ve read and continue to re-read each story, reflection and comments. I am equal parts heartbroken, enraged and saddened.”
All K-12 schools and colleges are learning that prioritizing diversity is not the same as creating a true inclusive environment. As an Atlanta International School student shared on the Instagram page, “...singing Kwanzaa songs in chorus does not count.”
Many of the comments echo what Marist School students and their parents told me when a fall incident at their school exposed racial fault lines. Families of color said Marist administrators downplay racism because they don’t want the school’s reputation tainted.
Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn is going through a similar reckoning as Atlanta International School. On a recent Instagram post, dozens of former students and parents described repugnant cases of racism that they allege Providence ignored or even sanctioned. A black mother posted her daughter would come home from the elementary school “sobbing because a girl in her class called her a ‘monkey.’”
A white Providence Christian student recounted:
One instance I remember was the day after Obama was elected, when the only two black girls in my class were basically told to shut the hell up and stop being so happy because, and I quote, "This is a horrible day for our country." And this was not a student saying this, y'all. This was a teacher. These students were told on countless occasions that the only reason Obama got elected was because he was black, and they were mocked every time they celebrated their culture in any way.
In a response, Providence Christian told parents and students:
We have read every comment as well as fielded phone calls and emails. We have heard you. And we’re grateful that you’ve chosen to express your heartfelt concerns. It’s clear that we have fallen short in making Providence a safe and welcoming place for all of our students. We regret that, and we’re sincerely sorry. We know that we are called to a higher standard of treating all with respect as image-bearers of God.
Providence is committed to tangible change so that we can better serve Black students - and all students of color. We are making a permanent, long-term commitment to lead on the issue of race and racial reconciliation.
Based on the feedback we’ve received, extensive discussions with the Board, and multiple external diversity advisors, here is our framework for positive change and the initial steps we are taking.
Providence Christian pledged to create a director of diversity and school life position, establish a diversity committee to hold the administration accountable, hire staff and leadership members that reflect the diversity of the students, enhance an already existing advisory committee of diverse parents, conduct sensitivity training for staff beginning this summer, establish a students of color group, hire an external agency regarding diversity and inclusion, establish a committee of diverse staff to review racial complaints from students, and create a mentorship program and identify mentors from the community for students of color.
Many of the 81 posts by Atlanta International School graduates and current students and the hundreds of responses reference offensive conduct by white classmates, including racial slurs, remarks about a need for a white history month and dressing in blackface for Halloween. But there are also troubling anecdotes about school staff criticizing the natural hair of black students or accusing them of cheating when they did well.
A former AIS student recalls asking another student of color a question during class and the teacher reprimanding them with, “Stop talking about Beyoncé.”
The accounts of the AIS alums and students confirm what other students in other schools say about what happens when they report racist behavior -- they are chided for being overly sensitive or seeing racism where none was intended.
The lesson here for all schools and school leaders -- and for the education media -- is to shut up and listen rather than offer excuses or mitigations. (That point is made in strong terms on the BlackatAIS Instagram page to a white graduate who posted that wearing blackface is OK on Halloween if there is no racist intent. )
Here is the full statement from AIS headmaster Kevin Glass. I have also reached out to his office for further comment this morning:
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