By Thomas Hochman
In its Mission Statement, OES commits itself to helping its students realize their power for good as citizens of local and world communities. But over the last several years, as the intensity of the national political atmosphere has tested the school’s commitments to civic engagement, inclusion, and open dialogue, it has backed down at every turn.
The examples are overwhelming. In January, a number of OES dorm students participated in the Women’s March – a worldwide protest promoting women’s rights. It was largely advertised as a bipartisan event.
OES posted a photo (below) of the dorm students who were there on the school’s Instagram page, taking steps to ensure that none of the signs in the picture contained overtly political statements.
Nevertheless, the picture was taken down within 24 hours.
“I can tell you unequivocally that it was [the Communications Team’s] decision to take the photo down,” said Liz Macdonell, OES’s Director of Advancement. “No one came to us asking to take it down — we just felt that posting a picture of students at the Women’s March in the midst of everything that was going on with the elections would be a bad idea, as OES doesn’t want to appear to be taking a partisan stance.”
But according to Head of School Mo Copeland, OES “received some feedback from parents who felt that we were making a political statement,” suggesting that pressure had, in fact, been put on the school to take the photo down. OES obliged.
“One of the most important features of being a citizen is engagement,” said Chris Myers, OES’s former head librarian. “It’s a shame that OES includes citizenship in its Mission Statement, but is unwilling to support its students in fulfilling that very mission. Even if the Women’s March was politically intended, it shouldn’t matter — OES should stand by engagement on both sides.”
This wasn’t the only instance in which the school crumbled at the first sign of disapproval.
Last year, a group of OES alumni from thirteen different classes sent a letter to Mo urging the school to publicly condemn the Trump administration’s travel ban. But despite the letter, and despite the emphases on diversity and inclusion in OES’s Identity and Value Statements, the school wasn’t ready to oppose the new executive order.
The habit has carried into this year, as a new version of the ban has been extended to cover countries like Chad – cancelling a Winterim trip and directly affecting international students on campus. Again, it was not the administration that responded, but the varsity volleyball team, who drafted a statement expressing its disapproval.
In the aftermath of the presidential election last November, OES explored taking steps towards adopting a definitive policy for its response to student engagement in politics, but did not follow through.
“Mo Copeland and the admin[istration] team requested that I write [a policy for civil discourse] last year,” Mike Gwaltney, the former chair of the history department, wrote in an email to The Dig. “I submitted it to them and received very positive feedback from Mo. After that, I never heard about it again.”
When asked about the policy that she had requested, Copeland replied that she didn’t know what happened to it.
When leaders in a community continually don’t speak out, it sets a precedent. It’s the job of an administration to set the tone and to help young people understand what it means to assert morals in difficult times – regardless of political motivation.
The administration needs to model engagement. Without it, we’re left with the kid scratching a swastika on the bathroom wall to see how — or when, or if — the school will react. A significant number of teachers were deeply unhappy with the school’s failure to respond to the travel ban. The same can be said about the decision to remove the photo of the Women’s March. But OES hasn’t budged. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Despite its innumerable flaws, I think OES has unbelievable potential as a school. But for it to become a place that I can truly say I’m proud of, it’s going to have to stand for what it says it believes in. This is an Episcopal school. It shouldn’t shrink from its identity. Part of attending OES is agreeing to certain values and tenets.
When parents and students alike tell the school to not make a statement, or to take a picture down, or to not let a speaker speak, I want OES to say, “No. This is what we believe. These are our values. This is why we exist.”
Thanks for reading.