Fieldston outlines progress in battling race issues

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After a March protest claiming systemic racial discrimination, Ethical Culture Fieldston School began taking steps to change, according to a letter from its administration to students, alumni and supporters.

Head of school Jessica Bagby distributed the letter June 11, highlighting talks she’s had with various groups, including Fieldston’s board of trustees, faculty, students and even lawyers.

“As this process has evolved and we have delved into each student concern, we have been heartened by the alignment between the students’ concerns and the school’s priorities, as well as the relevant work that was already under way,” Bagby wrote.

A video surfaced last February — reported to have been made years earlier — allegedly showing five Fieldston students “using racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language in a hateful and targeted way,” according to student protestors at the time. The school recommended three of the students be suspended. The fourth left the school during the disciplinary process, while a school committee ruled “no consequence” for the fifth student.

But some 90 students did not think the response was adequate and, on March 11, locked themselves in a building on campus. The group, calling themselves “Students of Color Matter,” submitted a list of demands. Four days passed before the administration agreed to the students’ immediate requirements and the protest ended. School leaders also vowed to address the students’ 16 long-term demands for sweeping school policy reforms.

Days later, Malakai Hart and his parents filed suit in federal court demanding changes in Fieldston’s policies. The complaint calls for Bagby and other administrators to resign or be removed. Hart’s lawsuit is pending.

In April, the school implemented a new system for reporting racism and hate speech on campus. Every complaint — even those without physical evidence — will be documented, according to Bagby’s letter.

The school also began sharing data about employee attrition, including minority faculty members. It produced reports on the discipline committee’s bias incidents, which addressed three reports in 2017-18 and six the following academic year. Expulsion, separation or “other” was the most common disciplinary outcomes for bias in the last three years.

The school will invite two members of the Students of Color Matter group to each of Fieldston’s board of trustees meetings, according to Bagby’s letter, while pledging to recruit more minority students.

“The admissions office will strengthen partnerships with organizations that serve applicants of color and explore further potential partnerships or methods of enhancing the diversity of our applicant pools,” Bagby wrote.

During the fall semester, the school will revise its disciplinary process, begin recruiting employees of color, support racial identity in the lower grades, and provide student conflict resolution guidance. Bagby also wrote the school will establish a “pre-eminent curriculum including foundational courses and electives” about African American and indigenous peoples’ studies.

Students also demanded all staff members and parents go through racial bias training. Fieldston’s administration worked with the New York City Commission on Human Rights to develop training and courses.

“Fieldston was very open to having staff training on racial diversity, a youth racial diversity training as well as peer mediation and outreach, which is what we do with our youth education,” spokeswoman Alicia McCauley said. “And then they were happy to do an all-staff training and do deeper sessions with key staff members.”

The human rights commission provides education on the basics of human rights laws. Workshops cover the protected classes — racial minorities, people with disabilities, and women. They educate participants about the places of public accommodation —courthouses, libraries, restaurants, transportation services and others that serve the public — wherein discrimination against protected classes is prohibited.

Bagby and Students of Color Matter representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the steps taken by the school, the affected students are skeptical, said Derek Sells, the attorney representing Malakai Hart.

“One of the reasons the lawsuit was filed to begin with was because Fieldston has always, when confronted with allegations of race discrimination, they’ve always said things that were meant to ameliorate the situation,” Sells said, “but their actions didn’t manifest themselves in any significant change.”

Students and families of color have asked the administration repeatedly over the years to address the harassment and bias minorities face each day in the private school, the lawyer said. But many times, those making complaints were subject to retaliation instead of any real relief.

“So that’s why this lawsuit is there,” Sells said, “to force the Fieldston School to make the changes they should have made years ago.”

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