Under fire for instances of racism, two Bay Area Catholic high schools implement changes to address institutional racial injustice

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“It’s kinda sad that it took so long for something to happen… but I’m glad change is happening,” said Julian Shearin-Sewell, a rising junior at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a reckoning for schools, businesses and institutions across the nation, the Bay Area Catholic community has had to make necessary changes to address racial injustice as well.

Archbishop Mitty and another prominent Bay Area Catholic high school, Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, have recently come under scrutiny for continued instances of racism within the student body, prompting a response from students and the administration. At Archbishop Mitty, former students have taken to Twitter to call out racial discrimination from faculty and students under the hashtag “#exposemitty.” There have also been instances of racial injustice at Saint Francis, most notably when a group of alumni were linked to a racist Instagram post mocking George Floyd.

Shearin-Sewell spoke about the challenges he has experienced as a Black student at the predominantly Asian and white Archbishop Mitty.

“It seems like there’s more eyes on you,” he told The Daily. “You’re expected to uphold the standard. Even if that standard isn’t who you are, you’re expected to maintain that at all times, rather [than] just be yourself.” 

Paige Ashton, who just graduated from Archbishop Mitty High School, said that she felt that same pressure at times.

“I felt the pressure of having to be the perfect Black person so I represented everyone else who looked like that,” she said. “Well, even though I shouldn’t have to carry that burden, nor am I expected to, it was one that I felt I had to.”

The administration at Saint Francis High School responded to this incident and other feedback from students and alumni with a Twitter post and statement on their website. This initial response from Saint Francis focused on organizing community events to address racism and discrimination. In an updated statement, the administration issued curriculum changes, school policy revisions and efforts to hire more diverse employees. 

The school plans to implement an anti-bias curriculum, an ethnic studies graduation requirement and course offerings on social justice. School policy was revised to emphasize improving students’ behavior and reducing excessive punishment. Lastly, per the administration’s statement, Saint Francis will “enact hiring practices that will ultimately lead to the school’s educators reflecting the demographics of the Diocese of San Jose” through making new hiring guidelines.

Liam Tierney, a rising junior at Saint Francis high school, believes that these changes are a step in the right direction. He said, “I feel like it’s like it’s good. Any change in that direction is good.”

However, Tierney recognizes the limitations of the school’s actions, pointing out that not all students will respond positively to change.

“I feel like the people the school is trying to reach with [these measures] already have these views kind of set in their minds, so they’re going to work to defend them,” Tierney said. “They’re not going to work to listen and learn because they don’t want to.”

Like Saint Francis, Archbishop Mitty high school posted a list of changes in an official statement on Twitter, including improving lines of communication between administration and the Archbishop Mitty community; better educating faculty, students and teachers on racism; and implementing more ways to look for more diverse staff. 

The school also announced the creation of a subcommittee to select a diversity consultant for the school. To improve lines of communication between students and administrators, Mitty appointed Principal Kate Caputo as a liaison between the Archbishop Mitty community and the administration for race issues, and introduced programs to enhance administrative support for students of color, including implementing biannual listening sessions between students of color and the administration, and providing the Outreach program additional opportunities for discussions surrounding race. 

In order to provide more complete education on racism, the administration added more staff development on how to support students of color; the Parent Education series investigated more resources to discuss race issues with students, and looked for ways to focus curriculum on the causes of injustice. Lastly, Mitty expanded resources to look to hire more diverse faculty and staff.

“The administration will expand existing resources to seek greater diversity in applicant pools for faculty and staff hiring,” the Archbishop Mitty administration wrote in their official statement.

Kaitlyn Springs, a rising senior, is cautiously optimistic about the appointment of Caputo as the point of contact at Mitty for issues about race. Springs said that she is “unsure about the direction [this appointment] will actually go.” 

Ashton, who graduated from Mitty last year, praised Caputo’s initiative, but also pointed out that “[Caputo] personally hasn’t been affected or directly discriminated against” and added that she would prefer if the school hired a liaison who was not previously associated with the school, for a less biased stance. 

Springs believes that Mitty’s lack of diversity within the administration also poses potential problems for hiring new staff and attracting diverse applicants.

“What [Mitty’s] administration projects is not a big diverse face from the administration side… I don’t think many diverse faces will be drawn in,” Springs said. 

Shearin-Sewell echoed Springs’s sentiment when it comes to prospective students, adding that “based on the things [the students] heard before, even after being accepted, they don’t want to come,” he said. 

At Stanford, the Catholic community has also implemented changes to address racial justice on campus. Education is one such change. Fifth year Ph.D. candidate Katie Wullert M.A. ’17, who served as Vice President of the Catholic Community at Stanford ([email protected]), described some of this programming in an email to The Daily.

[email protected] graduate leadership “is currently working on a presentation and discussion examining racism in the church that is the kick off to a book club that will continue the conversation,” Wullert said.

Another main element of change is direct service. Lourdes Alonso, the campus minister and advisor for student organizations at Stanford, announced plans for greater engagement with communities of color in East Palo Alto.

“[W]e partnered with the Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto, and we’re working with their pastor right now to set up some programming with the kids in the community,” Alonso said.

Alonso also emphasized the importance of seeing the service as accompaniment in order to truly make progress. She added, “We’re going to open ourselves to growth. We’re going to make ourselves vulnerable to change into thinking differently. And then allowing — I’m Brown, by the way — our Black and Brown brothers and sisters to share with us ways that we could work for systemic changes. So then, then that’s another piece is like, what in a system needs to change?”

Students at Bay Area Catholic high schools generally saw these changes as steps in the right direction. There was, however, one change that students unanimously called for: implementing stricter and more clear-cut policies against racism. 

A new Supreme Court ruling on July 8 may threaten this progress not only within the Bay Area Catholic community but also within the Catholic community at large. The ruling declared that Catholic schools could discriminate against ministerial employees — those who carry out some sort of religious duty, whether it be a priest or religion teacher — based on race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors.

Alonso believes that the Supreme Court ruling could mean only upholding certain parts of Catholic teaching and not supporting other aspects.

“We shouldn’t discriminate on very specific parts of people’s lives,” Alonso said. “And I think that’s not what [the Catholic] teaching says. Our teaching says to love one another.”

Contact Louis Chavey at louis ‘at’ chavey.org.

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Louis Chavey is a high schooler writing as part of the Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.