A Letter from the Headmaster Concerning Diversity at Saint James

From the Headmaster
Concerning Diversity at Saint James
26 June 2020

Dear Friends of Saint James,

As Kim Dudash, our Director of Communications, wrote to you on June 3, several recent alumni wrote a letter and presented a petition asking us to review and improve our policies concerning diversity. As Mrs. Dudash wrote to you, we considered the letter to be thoughtful, grateful, and appropriate, and we agree that our policies and curriculum are in need of review and updating.

Happily, Saint James has a remarkably diverse student body, but this has been a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining pace over the last 28 years. This reflects our Episcopal and Anglican identity and the improving academic reputation of the school both at home and abroad. We do recognize, however, that this diversity is not yet reflected in our administration and faculty, but we share this challenge with other independent schools, particularly in rural areas.

The last four years have also been particularly challenging because of the divisions that have developed within our country and internationally, as these divisions can come to campus in very personal ways. Further, the Black Lives Matter Movement has certainly caused us to reconsider how we teach and understand our history and how best to address the continuing injustices which confront us as a nation and a society.

It is certainly true that many of our students have been made to feel excluded, demeaned, or even unsafe because of comments made by other students or faculty, not all of them intentional, but nonetheless hurtful, and some quite openly hostile. They have been telling their stories bravely, and we should listen carefully to how these comments or actions have made them feel. I personally and sincerely apologize for anything I may have said or done which has hurt anyone, however unintentionally, and I apologize on behalf of the school.

Clearly, two deficits need to be addressed immediately. First, the faculty and the student body need to be better educated as to what is hurtful and not helpful, and what is insulting and not "funny" to better understand how and why people from different backgrounds react and feel as they do. This is especially important because we are a small boarding school that functions in many ways as a family, with a great deal of casual conversation, bantering humor, and "friendly" informality, so we need to be that much more careful that everyone feels welcomed, appreciated, and supported.

Second, students who are hurt in this way need "safe places" and "trusted adults" of their choosing to speak to confidentially, so that misunderstandings can be resolved quickly and more serious issues exposed and addressed forcefully. The prefects in particular need more training in this regard, as they are often the first responders when students act or speak inappropriately on campus, online, and in the dormitories, or when a student feels attacked or disrespected by a teacher.

One need which we were already addressing was our lack of a diversity statement. This was flagged for us in the Middle States and AIMS ten-year evaluation, and we plan to submit a proposal to the Board for their approval in October. I have also asked the Diocese for a facilitator to lead a faculty and staff workshop on anti-racism training of the kind required of the clergy. This will be done in August before the students return to campus.

In terms of process, I have asked Marc Batson, the Assistant Headmaster, to form a faculty and administrative committee to review our diversity policies internally, and Melanie Zayas Regan, the Assistant Director of Fine Arts who is also an alumna of the class of 2000, to head a committee of diversity alumni, to converse with the faculty committee and review their recommendations. I have also asked Steve Lachut, the Dean of Students, to form a student committee to advise him and engage in this process as well. They will all be reporting to the wider community as their work progresses.

The four areas I have asked them to review are:

  1. Regathering: How can we best regather as a school in the fall acknowledging what has happened during our absence and making sure that we treat each other with mutual respect, deeper empathy, and greater understanding? This will take advantage of the changes in our schedule caused by our need to gather in smaller groups and with more time on campus.
  2. Student Support: How can we develop our Student Life Office and Programs to encourage mutually supportive conversations and interactions between students and between students and faculty, and how can we better provide the adult and peer support our students need to seek help when they are feeling excluded, demeaned, humiliated, or attacked?
  3. Policies: How can our counseling and disciplinary policies better enforce our expectations for polite and mutually respectful behavior between students, between students and faculty, and between our students and members of the outside community?
  4. Curriculum: How can our curriculum, both academic and extracurricular, better provide for diverse voices and perspectives, enhancing the overall education of our students?

In addition to those petitioning for this review and for the changes which they have suggested, others have written and called in response expressing their concern that we will somehow lose our more traditional character or quality as a school. My belief is that the one is in no way exclusive of the other because at the heart of our traditions is our commitment to community and our historic and enduring mission as a school to teach the truths and develop the skills our students will need "for success in college" and "to be leaders for good in the world."

For surely, the questions we must ask ourselves as individuals and as a community are just the same I ask at every baptism: "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" and "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" (Book of Common Prayer, p.305).

As I often remind myself in moments of frustration or discouragement, no school is perfect. Only heaven is perfect, which is why we pray for heaven to come. But schools can always improve, so we embrace this opportunity with humility, with concern for each other, and with hope for the future.

May God bless you all.

Yours faithfully,

The Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan

More School News