Dear Parents and Guardians,
Our monthly message is usually an opportunity to reflect on a mission-related topic from a positive perspective. However, the past few weeks have brought distressing and challenging news of incidents involving students at two private schools: Poly Prep (Brooklyn, NY) and Covington Catholic High School for boys in Kentucky. These two incidents differ significantly. However, both contain “teachable moments.” What can we, as Fordham Prep parents and educators, learn from them and impart to our sons and students?
Here are the troubling details and background:
At Poly Prep, students of color engaged in walk-outs and their parents protested what they felt was the school’s inadequate response to an incident in which students videotaped and posted on social media images of girls dancing and joking while in blackface. The leaders of Poly Prep must attempt to rebuild trust within their divided school community and repair the school’s image.
At the Lincoln Memorial, adults targeted Covington students wearing pro-Trump attire through a series of verbal attacks and aggressive political conduct which were videotaped and released on social media and via traditional media sources. Some early images of these conflicts quickly went viral. A rush to judgment against the students ensued. Additional content was released in which the students are subjected to racist, homophobic and anti-Catholic invective. A few days later, yet another video depicted Covington students on the National Mall shouting demeaning, violent and vile speech to young women. These videos were produced, posted, and covered in the media while students were on a school trip to participate in the annual March for Life which aims to raise awareness of pro-life values.
While not exhaustive, here are three “lessons learned” that we take away from these incidents:
First Lesson: Smartphone technology and its widespread and common usage make it increasingly likely that conduct or speech will be recorded and shared on social media or through other means. This can lead to damaging consequences.
We see frequent examples of the use--and, unfortunately, the abuse--of this technology. An adult passenger on Metro-North emailed us recently to complain about Fordham Prep students. His note included a video file from his phone which identified one of the students engaged in poor conduct. Seemingly unaware of any harm, young people sometimes on their own post damaging content on social media or share it with others. Without their explicit consent, students may also be the subject or the recipient of damaging content. This content can easily become viral on the internet and therefore poses a serious risk to the reputation of young people which can have lasting negative consequences.
On the one hand, we must help our students grow, which means supporting them and keeping them safe even when they make mistakes--and even when these mistakes become public. On the other hand, Fordham Prep treats seriously any incident of sexist or racist conduct or violent speech, such as those displayed in the Covington and Poly Prep incidents. Conduct and speech which express hatred--especially hatred based on race, gender or sexual orientation--and using technology to share such hateful content, have no place in our community and they violate our policies (cf. Parent-Student Handbook, pp. 90-92; 96-97). Please speak directly with your son about these complex issues, review school policy, and help him understand these significant risks. Fordham Prep’s partnership with Common Sense Educationprovides excellent resources in this area.
Second Lesson: On school trips parents entrust their children to adults who are charged to protect students, provide moral and spiritual guidance, and teach them valuable lessons that form their values and faith.
We expect Fordham Prep students to live up to high standards of conduct and comport themselves as Men for Others at all times, even when confronted with bad behavior. This expectation extends to school trips and applies to student conduct on and off campus (cf. Parent-Student Handbook, pp. 86-88). At the same time, chaperones play a critical supervisory role during school trips. Perhaps we’re missing something, but it seems that a large group of Covington students were left unsupervised in a highly charged environment, as there were no obvious signs of responsible intervention from a chaperone. Adult chaperones have a responsibility to remove students from volatile situations. They must be attentive to help them avoid conduct which could damage their reputations. We will be meeting in the near future with chaperones of upcoming overnight trips. The purpose of our meeting is to review the responsibility of our chaperones to remain engaged, and reflect on any additional measures to consider which would ensure that students are protected and cared for to the best of our ability.
Third Lesson: Fordham Prep’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths. It is made even stronger by our shared faith and our commitment to help young men realize their full human potential through their common bond with others who are different than them.
Our students hail from over 110 zip codes. Nearly 40% are students of color. 20% of our students speak a language other than English at home. 45% of our students receive financial aid. Rather than a “check-the-box” diversity or one developed through a process of social engineering, Fordham Prep’s unique enrollment mix is an organic consequence of our location in metropolitan New York and our historic, Catholic Jesuit mission. Can we better leverage this diversity to teach our students the values of respect and appreciation for cultural, ethnic and other types of differences? Can we do more to help our students learn how to encounter those who are different, discover their common humanity and recognize the divine life within each person, regardless of these differences? Our convictions about these values and this encounter do not issue from allegiance to a political agenda; rather, we find them at the core of our faith and Fordham Prep’s Catholic and Jesuit mission, and repeatedly in the Gospels. We reflect on them with our students.
Thanks to our mission-driven faculty and staff, these values are already the subject of many activities and programs, such as our upcoming assembly with young women at the Academy of Mount St. Ursula, sponsored by the One Love Foundation; our recent assembly in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr; Matteo Ricci Night which celebrated the cultures of Fordham Prep; our Global Education Program; the ongoing work of the Prep’s Diversity Alliance; and the upcoming Dramatics Society production of The Laramie Project (Friday 2/8 and Saturday 2/9 at 8:00pm in the Leonard Theatre). In addition, this coming Friday 2/8 during Activities Period, we are planning an opportunity for dialogue with our students to help them learn from the Covington and Poly Prep incidents. Please consider encouraging your son to get involved in these events and activities which contribute in so many ways to the positive environment and culture of cura personalis here at the Prep.
As always, we are eager to hear from you with any ideas to help us lead Fordham Prep’s growth in applying these and other lessons learned.
Rev. Christopher J. Devron, SJ
Joseph A. Petriello, PhD '98