Many of you saw Poly in the news this weekend concerning a video that was made three years ago by then-middle schoolers in blackface. The video was hateful and offensive and the students who made it are no longer at Poly. Many people were deeply hurt by the video, by our response to it, and by the ensuing media coverage. They, like so many of you, care deeply about Poly.
We want you to hear what is happening directly from us. As soon as the administration learned of the video, we began reaching out to students and families. At the end of the week, I wrote to current parents about our assembly, the concerns raised by Umoja student leaders in their letter to the Administration, and the Upper School student sit-in that was an extraordinarily powerful and empowering moment.
As Head of School, I am committed to taking substantive action and maintaining an open dialogue to make Poly a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment where every one of our students can thrive. I acknowledged our students’ pain and that I should have acted more swiftly to prevent harm to our community. I apologized for letting them down. I extend my apologies to you.
We are now focused on our path forward. We recognize that our efforts to identify and fight bias and discrimination must better reflect the needs of our community as we chart a path to becoming more inclusive and equitable.
When we returned to school on Tuesday, I spent much of the day in meetings and conversation with our Middle and Upper School faculty and students. Lower School classrooms held discussions as well. With guidance from our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice, the Middle and Upper School faculty used advisories and classes to engage students in discussions about their feelings, racial identity, and race relations at Poly.
I wrote to all parents describing these efforts. I would like to take this opportunity to do the same for you, our alumni.
I have been meeting with parents, including with leaders of the Parents’ Association and parents from HUGS (Poly’s historically underrepresented groups, who identify as Black and Latinx) in small groups and individually. They have shared their perspectives and their advice helped guide my conversation with students.
When I spoke with our Middle School students, I told them that the video depicted racist images that were hurtful. I explained blackface. I described how our Upper School students had protested civilly and respectfully to inspire change. Through this example, I asked them to use the power of their own voices to stand up for what is right and to call out what is wrong. I asked them to say something if they see something that makes them feel uncomfortable or is wrong.
In the afternoon, our Upper School assembled in the Chapel. The eighth graders asked to join our meeting and filled the balcony.
I thanked them for making their sit-in a constructive act of civil disobedience. I told them that I, and we, don’t want hatred in our community. I asked them to join me in candid discussion and taking action about what we can achieve together for improving our culture at Poly. Our Umoja leaders re-read their letter from the MLK Day Assembly and I addressed their points of concern.
I read letters of apology from the girls who participated in the video. I committed to retaining an outside organization to research and report on Poly’s climate of diversity and inclusion. I let them know that I am being more explicit in verbal and written communications addressing the content of the video and its effects on our community. I described our efforts over the course of the past year to begin creating an academic department of “above all, character.” Its charge is to develop a comprehensive N-12 curriculum to empower our students to pursue well-lived lives. (I look forward to sharing more details about it with you soon.) I reiterated our commitment to hiring diverse faculty, and enumerated the job fairs and conferences we attend, and the search firms that aid us. I committed to forming a task force of students, faculty, and administrators to add to and strengthen the language in our Code of Conduct that addresses hateful actions and hate speech. I also committed to forming a separate task force to develop policies that ensure discipline is administered equitably and consistently.
Our assembly was replete with spirited questions for me about how we will rebuild trust and Poly’s reputation. The students are engaged and excited about moving forward.
After our assembly, Umoja and Student Government leaders wrote a letter to the Mayor in response to his tweet, inviting him to Poly to see firsthand how they believe that “the recent representation of our school in the media is not accurate and misrepresents the overwhelming majority of us.” They described how “over 250 post-it notes and posters detailed students’ wishes for change, and the messages have sparked further productive conversations with our administration, within our broader school community, and with other New York City schools.” They concluded by saying that “as a student body, we are absolutely committed to making our school a space where all feel respected and safe.”
On Wednesday, we had a crowded community forum with students eager to work with me and offer support. They had thoughtful questions about the initiatives I had described. Raquel Thompson '02 came to the meeting to tell the students that she had read on her Facebook timeline about the sit-in and that she was proud of the students. She also offered the support of alumni. The students applauded her offer, and I also look forward to taking advantage of it.
In the days ahead, I will reach out to you about a forum for alumni to share stories, constructive criticism, and ideas for how Poly can continue to improve. We look forward to seeing you at that forum and working with you to build a stronger Poly.
Audrius Barzdukas P'20
Head of School