UPDATE: Marist School held a forum for parents Wednesday night to share concerns after which Rev. William Rowland, school president, released this statement:
Recent incidents have brought to light concerns about a lack of racial sensitivity within our school community. At Marist School, we are heartbroken because creating a community of inclusion that respects race is very important to us. Inclusiveness is a core Marist value that we strive to live by every day.
Although we have been taking steps toward creating a diverse and inclusive campus, it is sobering and disappointing to realize we have a long way to go to achieve this goal. We are committed to listening, learning, and acting so we can be a better school community. We are thankful for our Marist family of students, parents, alumni, and faculty/staff who are engaged and want to help us achieve a welcoming environment of which we all can be proud.
A teacher at Marist School offered up a morning reflection and prayer Friday that referenced a recent alleged blackface incident involving students from the private school, as well as a deadly shooting last week in a California school.
As a result of that morning reflection, theology teacher Mary Catherine Harmon-Christian is on leave from the Atlanta independent Catholic school. She upset some parents in mentioning a recent and controversial incident in which Marist teens posted an off-campus Snapchat video of themselves with darkened faces and dancing to rap music. She did not name the students in the video.
Some parents maintain the girls darkened their faces to appear highly tanned and were not seeking to offend classmates of color. The school administration would not comment on its investigation and conclusion.
Marist grads of color are protesting the reprimand of a teacher respected as an ally of students of color over what they consider a needed wake-up call on racism. And they are asking Marist to go beyond a diversity statement to a diverse culture that values and seeks equity and inclusion.
In her reflection, Harmon-Christian expressed sorrow over the disappointment of black students over racial in sensitivity.
Her comments set off a firestorm. The school’s president sent parents and alumni a long explanation the next day in which he acknowledged that the reflection was well-intentioned, but “publicly embarrassed” students, something that Marist faculty and staff are not supposed to do.
The Rev. William Rowland wrote:
Our sense is the prayer was intended to draw attention to important and relevant concerns about the effect hateful rhetoric and actions have as well as the need to be sensitive as to how certain comments or words can be hurtful to those on the receiving end, especially students of color and those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identification.
While these are important topics and ones that the school will continue to address, how they were addressed, the focus put on specific events and individuals in our own community, as well as the opinions and conclusions, did not reflect the position and approach of Marist School or the Society of Mary, which we will address internally.
“The reflection placed an uncharacteristic emphasis on specific students and their behaviors,” said Marist principal Kevin Mullally in a telephone interview today.
Mullally declined to detail the punishment doled out to the students. However, Marist students said the school penalizes students with demerits, and the girls were given demerits.
Marist Graduates of Color, a 60-member group that formed in the wake of this incident, is asking the school to reconsider its admonishment of Harmon-Christian.
While grads who spoke to the AJC expressed gratitude for the education they received at Marist, they want a more open discussion of what they call an underlying current of racism and a lack of accountability.
“When I read her prayer, I had trouble seeing where she said something that was out of line,” said Thomas Vance, a 2017 grad and debate star now at the University of Michigan.
“The school felt she embarrassed students even though she didn’t say their names. You should be able to talk to more than a thousand students about these incidents, about why they are bad and don’t agree with Catholic social teaching and why they are not part of the Marist way,” said Vance.
Mullally said the school intends to continue to address racism, holding forums this week for parents, students and staff.
“We are not immune to the divisiveness in society, and our students are not immune to making mistakes they see modeled in that society. We have a responsibility to teach them through those mistakes,” Mullally said. “We can do that while protecting the dignity of that individual, even while we address as an institution what we might need to learn from our own mistakes.”
A parent, who spoke to the AJC, said Marist takes concerns of white students and parents more seriously than families of color, and this stands as another example. When her kids and other students of color have reported racist comments or social media posts, there is no public repudiation or broader effort to educate kids on the many forms and faces of racism, she said.
“I understand that the actual discipline is going to be confidential and I respect that, but when a student makes a display of racism, as these girls did by putting on blackface and posting it to social media, the school should make a statement,” said the parent, who asked that her name be withheld.
“Marist should have called an assembly and called out that behavior and given some historical context about blackface. Use it as a teaching moment. The school acts like a bystander in these situations. The school is worried about exposing the girls, but, if you put something on Snapchat, you exposed yourself,” she said.
Howard University freshman Lauren Davis, a 2019 Marist grad, recalled a student two years ago who showed up at a football game in blackface. “The theme was blackout, which normally means wear black clothes,” said Davis.
In her somber reflection and prayer, Harmon-Christian also touched on gun violence, relaying that her nephews attended the California high school where a day earlier a student opened fire and killed two classmates. Harmon-Christian did not respond to a request for an interview.
“I am angry that my nephews and so many students are being failed by adults who should care more about our children than about access to guns,” she said.
She then addressed students and colleagues of color at Marist, saying:
I am sorry about the impact and pain you are experiencing. I grieve with you…I am sad that the Marist fam is a sham for many of our students. I am angry that our beautiful, intelligent resilient students and faculty of color continue to be disrespected in our Marist School after 400 years of slavery, torture, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration.
Word of the prayer spread fast to parents on Friday.
“There is always a Marist mom on campus,” said Davis. “There are adults working in the campus store. Everyone in the school hears the prayer.”
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