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Sewickley Academy students seek public apology, petition administration for concessions

Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA
Students from the Sewickley Academy student group Collective Action for Representative Education at Sewickley (CARES) discussed the demands from their petition at a press conference on Wednesday.

A group of Sewickley Academy students want administrators to address concerns about recent personnel and programming decisions at the school and respond to a petition circulated last week.

The move comes less than a week after police were called on the students attempting to deliver the petition to Sewickley Head of School Dr. Ashley Birtwell. Four teachers were fired, and one administrator resigned.

At a press conference on Wednesday, students asked for a public apology for the incident and some school-wide changes.

“This administration has purposefully and systemically sidelined progress towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice,” said Madeleine Wren, a student at the academy and member of the student group Collective Action for Representative Education at Sewickley (CARES).

The petition garnered 110 signatures out of a total of about 230 high school students, Wren said. It outlines eight demands, including an update the Student and Family Handbook to allow for off-campus criticism of the school and a national search for a permanent diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice director.

In a statement, school officials said they began a nationwide director search “months ago” and have begun to interview candidates.

Tensions at Sewickley Academy have been high since last summer, when a number of personnel changes, including the dismissal of the former Head of School and several teachers, took place.

Madison Martin, a student at Sewickley and member of CARES, said she wants administrators to be more transparent about those kinds of decisions.

“It’s not just about teachers getting fired — because obviously we care about that, and we miss our teachers — but it goes way beyond that,” she said.

Members of CARES said they’re concerned administrators aren’t hearing student concerns, particularly the concerns of students of color.

“The actions of the Sewickley Academy administration are not mistakes,” Wren said. “They’re deliberate limitations on our rights as students and the [diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice] program at our school.”

School officials have criticized the students’ response, saying, “Ongoing disruption of school days is neither respectful of their classmates who choose to be learning at this time, nor a constructive way to resolve their concerns.”

“First and foremost, I commend our students for expressing themselves and their compassion for the betterment of our school,” Birtwell said in the school’s statement. “I am disappointed that this group of students and their parents have decided to conduct a public campaign against their own school rather than first meeting and collaborating with me and other school leaders, which is what that they had originally requested.”

Both the students and Birtwell said they have reached out to each other to arrange a meeting.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at