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Class dismissed? Some Sewickley Academy students say they no longer feel welcome at school

Sewickley Academy students protest outside of the senior school on March 4 the day after police were called to respond to what administrators described as disorderly students. Students deny those claims and say they were attempting to deliver a petition.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Sewickley Academy students protest outside of the senior school on March 4, the day after police were called to respond to what administrators described as disorderly students. Students deny those claims and say they were attempting to deliver a petition.

Omar Malik recognizes the privilege he has to attend a private high school. A first-generation American of Middle Eastern and south Asian descent, he said his parents wanted to give him every advantage.

“They wanted me to learn things that they didn’t, and they worked incredibly hard to get me to Sewickley Academy," he said. "And I think up until like last year, I think it was worth it."

The 17-year-old senior’s opinion of the school changed this year after some big shifts in personnel and policy. Some students of color allege that the school is removing teachers who support anti-racism work, and that administrators prioritize other student and parent voices over theirs.

It costs up to $30,000 a year to attend Sewickley Academy, though some students receive scholarships or other financial aid.

They’ve been asked why they don’t just leave the school if they are unhappy. Seniors have only a couple of months left. But those leading the movement say it’s bigger than them: It’s about equal access and opportunity.

Malik, for one, is part of CARES — Collective Action for Representative Education at Sewickley. Students formed the group to hold the administration accountable to its diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice plan.

“Saying that [if] you don’t feel supported at a school like this then you shouldn’t go, is sort of discounting that fact that we want to go to a school like this. And we deserve to go to a school like this," he said.

“If we aren’t meant to go to a school like that, then is it only meant for certain kinds of people?”

‘This isn’t political’

Last spring, Sewickley's longtime Head of School, Kolia O’Connor, and the head of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice initiatives issued a plan calling for anti-racism coursework. The move came almost a year after Black Lives Matter movements across the country demanded justice after a white police officer killed George Floyd in Minnesota.

But the new direction prompted the circulation of an anonymous letter, sent to families and board members and purportedly written by academy parents, which called the plan “politicized, ideological education." The letter contended that the program “very much rewrites the focus, mission and experience of the academy.”

“Social or political overtones” and activism, the letter argued, are not important to learning the fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematics, science, history and the arts. It asked that the board reevaluate the direction taken by the administration.

“We are committed to using our voices, time, and financial contributions to encourage the Sewickley Academy leadership and Board to chart a different course,” the letter stated.

Shortly after the letter was released, six school employees were removed, including O’Connor and the diversity director. One of those let go, a Black man, sued for racial discrimination and settled for an undisclosed amount last fall. The board says it can’t comment on personnel decisions.

Ashley Birtwell, a former board member and alumna of the school, was named interim Head of School and later named the permanent head. Birtwell said a national search for a DEI director has been underway for months, though the phrase "social justice" has been removed from the title.

Part of Birtwell’s job is to reverse a nearly 17 percent drop in enrollment during the past five years. But now she says her task is also to bring together a divided community.

“What we’re seeing is some of this tension, whether it be among faculty, whether it be among students, that this is the times that we live in that so many beliefs are so polarizing,” she said.

That division was evident on March 3, after students heard that four teachers who supported their anti-racism efforts would not return to the school next year. (Birtwell said they’ve been replaced.) About half of the students at the senior school signed a petition demanding transparency in personnel decisions. But a small group of students were accused of coercing others to sign.

Students said emotions were high that day, and they felt like they weren’t being listened to, so they took their petition to Birtwell's office without an appointment. Birtwell said she was out at the time but was told that students stormed in and used foul language. Students dispute that, though they acknowledge they were emotional after hearing that four of their teachers would not return next year.

The assistant Head of School called the police on students. Birtwell later called the move regrettable, and the administrator has since resigned. But after returning to class, students planned a walkout for the next day.

School administration canceled classes, saying they needed to pause and reset. But about 50 people showed up to the protest with signs that read “don’t take away our support system.”

Students have since met with administrators, but they said they still feel dismissed. And they suspect the voices of students who didn’t want to sign the petition were more important than theirs.

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Parental control

The anonymous letter said parents supported diversity, including diversity of thought, but that when it came to “sensitive and subjective matters," families should guide those conversations rather than the school.

Parental control is a common rallying cry in public school districts as well — especially as school board meetings have been dominated by arguments about anti-racism education and coronavirus response. Parents often say that they want control over when and how politics are discussed, and whether their child will wear a mask.

Students themselves have fewer rights on a private school campus. According to Sara Rose, an attorney with the ACLU, private school students have only the rights that the school gives them, compared to public school students who have constitutional protections.

“If the school says … we will allow you to say, X, Y and Z, or we will provide you with this kind of process before we take any disciplinary action against you, then the school has to abide by what it agreed to," Rose said. "Just like the students and their parents have to abide by what they agreed to."

Parent Anna Wigley said she knew that when she enrolled her daughter Naomi in the school. Naomi described herself as a conservative student who felt judged by teachers for her views. Anna Wigley said that while she has disagreed with the administration before, “At the end of the day, whatever decisions are made we have to accept it, you have to cope with it and you have to move on."

Anna Wigley said she just wants her daughter in her class learning.

“A lot of families sacrifice a lot for their kids to come here," she said. "And I just want her to go to school and learn basic subjects and come home and leave the personal and political agendas at home."

But while dissenting students say they want access and opportunity for all students, they admit to feeling torn. On one hand, they want more students of color to receive the education they got. But they say right now they wouldn’t recommend the school.

Still, CARES students like senior Anthony Wiles say there are principles at stake that shouldn't be set aside.

“I am now here, just like my other classmates, fighting for my other classmates … everybody who is made to feel as if Sewickley was not built for them and that they do not belong here," Wiles said. "We’re fighting for something much bigger than us.”