Protest leads to change at Fieldston


It’s the proverbial turning of a page, sowing seeds for potentially paradigm-shifting change while holding leadership  accountable.

But, some Ethical Culture Fieldston School students say, this is really just a beginning.

Escalating racial tensions at the elite private school boiled over March 11 after  some 90 students reportedly occupied an administrative building, locking out the very officials who use that building. It was all in response to a years-old video — which has been described as appallingly racist — that surfaced last month featuring a small group of students who were formerly at Fieldston.

Yet, some have argued the lock-in was a long time coming. It actually erupted after weeks of mounting tensions, prompted by what some students say was the administration’s inadequate response to the video, along with other alleged racial issues students, faculty and administrators are struggling to come to terms with.

The incendiary video showed some students from the school using the word “crack” followed by a racial epithet. It was created several years ago, according to published reports.


Transparency needed

The protests started around dawn March 11, organized by the group calling itself Students of Color Matter. They demanded Fieldston officials share publicly how the five students in the video were disciplined while also asking for a written apology from each of the offending students.

Of them, one withdrew from the school during the disciplinary process, the school said. For the other four students, a disciplinary committee recommended three suspensions and one “no-consequence.”

Meanwhile, none of the students have returned to classes, according to reports.

The protests continued through the following Tuesday. Other students who weren’t in the actual lockout still participated in sit-ins around the school, said Anton van Schaik, identifying himself as a Fieldston senior speaking “on behalf of all students.”

“All students participating” in the demonstration “have support from many parents and alumnae as well,” he added.

In an email to Fieldston families, faculty and students, head of school Jessica Bagby pushed for “discussion about our shared concerns,” calling a mandatory meeting of parents of students who intended to stay overnight Tuesday, according to the email.

The school’s “current situation arises out of multi-year racial trauma our students have experienced while at our school,” Bagby said, adding she and colleagues “could not be more profoundly sorry for this reality, which we fully recognize has weighed on the minds, hearts and spirits of our students of color and their families for years.”

Bagby asserted she, along with the board of trustees and administrative council, take responsibility for addressing “cultural and systemic concerns” at Fieldston to better serve students and faculty of color.

Student organizers, meanwhile, posted their demands on school building doors, and online. They also called for a mandatory black studies course, bias training for parents, ending racial profiling on campus, protecting faculty for speaking out, and implementing a new reporting system “for all incidents of bias, bigotry and racism on campus,” among other requests.


Collective support

“Derogatory language and intentionally harmful behavior are rampant within our community,” according to student organizers. “The absence of a system for reporting and recording these incidents means many of the students involved go unpunished.”

But they also stressed their demands are directed at the school’s board of trustees, Bagby and other Fieldston leaders.

“While the problems we seek to reform are institutional faults, we believe the individuals in these positions must be held accountable for the institution’s failure to enact meaningful change,” they wrote.

The current unrest stems from deep-seated ills, they added. Fieldston students have risen up in protest for at least a half-century, spurred by festering issues that have gone unaddressed far too long.

And local elected officials — including U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Councilman Andrew Cohen — seem to agree.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand,” they said in a group statement. “The rise in racism, anti-Semitism and extremism is real and must be confronted. Accountability is key. Students of color shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, period.”

More teens joined student protesters March 13 as occupation of Fieldston’s campus entered a third day, according to reports. Nearly 100 students had spent the night in school buildings Monday.

By Tuesday, another 50 occupied a second building.

By mid-week, administrators had given in to some of their demands, including investigating racism at the school and shedding light on punishment levied against students in the video.

In fact, several meetings on campus between students, teachers and administrators “led to meaningful dialogue and initiated the process for moving forward as a community,” Bagby said in an email to families, faculty, students, alumni and trustees late Wednesday.

“Ending bias, bigotry, and racism is surely an objective we can all support,” Bagby added.

After a seven-hour meeting, student organizers, the board of trustees and administrative council members reached an accord — with the school conceding to tackle every one of the students’ demands. Those included changes to the school’s discipline committee, student representation on the board, and recruiting more students of color, among others — all with deadlines for when they must be accomplished, some as soon as this year.


Claiming victory

Following the epic meeting, students gathered March 14 outside the gates of the bucolic campus for a press conference to announce what they touted as a monumental victory.

“Racism isn’t born,” read a sign affixed to the gates. “It’s taught.”

By that point, the Students of Color Matter movement had occupied Fieldston’s administrative building for 80 hours, student leader Kiah George told reporters. And it paid off in a big way, because their attempt to pressure the board of trustees and the administrative council to finally listen to them and take action proved a resounding success.

“It’s a very empowering day,” said senior Daniel Cross, one of the protesters who participated in the lock-in. “This protest wasn’t even meant, really, for the students involved. It was really meant for the next few generations of Fieldston to come. We weren’t here for us. We were here for everyone else.

“We’re leaving in a few months. But these other kids, they’re still here, and they’re still going to have to deal with it. We can only do so much when we’re away from the school, so it was really time to take action. It’s starting a movement. This is just the beginning.”