Speaking Out: swastika fuels a public reaction
As members both inside and outside St. Teresa's community react to last month's swastika incident, the Dart investigates recurring opinions, feelings and misconceptions.
October 16, 2017
Wednesdays for STA girls mean one of two things. Either you set your alarm 30 minutes later than usual, somehow feeling completely revitalized from how much sleep you gained, or you begrudgingly wake up at the same time as every other morning, envious of those soaking in their late start.
For freshman Tess Jones, it was the latter, and as she slipped on her not-yet-broken-in sweater, she knew that the only way she could stay awake for class mass was to get whatever kind of cheap coffee drink QuikTrip had to offer. Feeling slightly rushed and not fully awake, she made her way there, eager for her greatly needed cup of caffeine. But as she held the door for the man behind her, it was something else that shocked her right awake. Although quiet, there was no doubt the man had mumbled “neo-nazi” as he walked in.
Taken aback, she tried to quickly think of something she could say in return. “It was only nine girls out of a school of 600.” “You don’t know the full story.” “Can’t we just move on?” But she decided taking “the high road” and not responding would be the best response of all.
At the beginning of September, a group of STA students participated in an off-campus drinking game where the cups were at one point arranged into the shape of a swastika and posted on Snapchat. A screenshot of this post was sent to the administration.
In the weeks following this incident, members of both St. Teresa’s direct and indirect community voiced opinions and concerns over issues stemming from this incident. Two of the most prevalent concerns were over how much punishment the students received, and if the administration handled the situation correctly.
According to STA president Nan Bone, it is the administration’s policy to keep private any punishments meted out to students.
“As administrators, that’s our job, we don’t share consequences,” Bone said. “If we’re going to start telling everybody what every student got as [punishment], whatever it is that they’ve done, everybody will weigh in. ‘I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t like that.’ ‘That should’ve been this.’ And they are minors. I would [also] say schools across the United States don’t share consequences.”
Despite this policy of confidentiality, rumors quickly spread around school and within the wider community about the exact nature of the punishment the girls received. Much of the speculation was due to false media reports. Several different news sites caught onto the story, both locally and nationally, where it was reported that the students only received “one day of in-school reflection.”
“As always, in every situation, the press don’t know everything,” Bone said. “And it’s so hard for us to take criticism when they’re reporting on one thing, and that has caused the outrage.”
English teacher Sarah Taber talked with friends outside St. Teresa’s direct community, and found that most everyone responded to the news with calls for justice.
“Everyone I talked to, with the exception of one person, who continually responded that he thought people were blowing it out of proportion, but everyone else reacted with a need for justice,” Taber said. “And not punitive, but fair-minded ‘We don’t stand for this, this shouldn’t be tolerated, and we need to send that message.’”
As the news articles spread, anger in the surrounding community grew. The STA Facebook page was flooded with comments, the administration received an onslaught of letters from angered alumnae, and students endured a backlash from the public. This massive response wasn’t directed at the nine girls specifically; it became a war against the school as a whole.
Senior Gabby Martinez is one example of a student who was initially shocked by what the girls did and felt a need for justice. She believes, however, that many of the comments on Facebook were centered around other ideas not having to do with the situation.
“[People on Facebook] were commenting stuff about how STA girls are ‘sluts’ and ‘skanks’ and ‘privileged little bastards’, and just so much unhelpful and hurtful stuff,” Martinez said. “I was amazed that people would comment on stuff that they weren’t really a part of and not be helpful or supportive towards the girls that weren’t involved.”
Senior Emily Livingston thinks the Facebook comments generalized the entire school’s character based off one group’s mistake.
“It’s like [we’re] guilty by association, but it was unnecessary for them to take [their anger out on the school] as a whole,” Livingston said. “Be mad at the administration for handling it in a way you didn’t like, but don’t be mad at the rest of the student body.”
Most of the backlash has been received over Facebook, with a few posts from STA’s account receiving hundreds of comments. Senior Taylor Staves has been helping run the account this year as part of her Social Media Practicum course. Staves was “astounded” by the comments she saw.
“It really showed how powerful social media can be, but one of the things that really stood out was the number of alumnae who were speaking up,” Staves said. “It was kind of interesting in a cool way to see how STA really trains their girls to have a voice, and they were using theirs.”
A petition written by several alumnae circulated around Facebook and received 622 signatures as of Oct. 2. The signatures were from alumnae ranging from the classes of 1967 all the way up to the class of 2017.
The petition’s message to STA’s Board of Directors maintained that “the normalization of hate symbols grows their power.” It also called on the administration to take a number of actions. Martinez agrees with these alumnae, and thinks they make valid claims.
“They remember STA as their high school and they remember it how they remember it,” Martinez said. “To have a group of current students jeopardize what they know as STA, I think that would be difficult as alumnae, to have your whole school’s reputation be ruined.”
Others, like Livingston, disagree with alumnae who claim St. Teresa’s is no longer the same school that it used to be. Livingston blames this disenchantment on faulty news reports that have consistently misreported the consequences of the incident.
Bone recognizes the alumnae’s concerns, and hopes they can move forward with the school.
“St. Teresa’s is a safe place for girls to express their opinion,” Bone said. “And we’ve listened to them all. I’ve never closed the comments on Facebook because that’s what we believe: strong women have opinions. It’s now a time for us to unite as a school and show our alums that it is the school that they went to, but it’s even stronger and better.”
While some comments and articles called for the school to disclose details about the punishment the girls received, senior Grace Laird believes this would only cause more turmoil.
“There’s never going be a solution that makes everyone happy,” Laird said. “There’s going to be people in the community that are going to be like ‘Oh, that punishment was too harsh,’ and there are going to be people who are like ‘That punishment was too light.’ And there’s never going to be an equal balance and there’s never going to be an agreement because every person views it so differently and has such strong opinions.”
One of the calls from alumnae and other members outside the school’s direct community was for expulsion. However, Bone says that this punitive action would defeat any kind of learning experience. She says that expulsion is obviously not out of the question for everything, but that more good can be done if “we educate again.”
Livingston agrees that a more “rehabilitative” solution of teaching and learning from this mistake would be more beneficial for everyone in the long run.
According to Martinez, she has questioned the intentions behind their displaying of the swastika, believing the symbol holds just as much gravity today as it did back during World War II.
“In a historical context, it was used to justify the killing of thousands of people,” Martinez said. “Now, present day, you see it with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, and other situations like that.”
Livingston thinks that the girls did not form the swastika out of any racist intent, but rather as a “dumb joke” and swayed intentions from being under the influence. She also feels that media has pulled the story further out of context.
“How many Snapchat stories do you see of guys with Confederate flags?” Livingston said. “But it’s the first time it’s been brought to the attention of administration and media as something bigger than itself, and people are just taking this story and drawing it out. Especially through social media and through the media.”
Taber was one of many who included this incident in her curriculum, seeing as that’s where most students’ minds were at. She realized most of the girls were “upset by the enormity of the issue,” and decided to change the topic of their socratic seminar from short stories to an open discussion on their opinions regarding the incident.
“One of the things I’m trying to work with my seniors this year is being curious and developing a sense of inquiry,” Taber said. “We’re working a lot on taking a topic and asking questions and so in terms of that day, I proposed that we address the issue by asking some questions about it.”
But the anger for justice was also shared by many teachers and students at St. Teresa’s. Many voiced their concerns via social media, class discussions and with senior Sophia Brown, even staging a walk-out.
“I was happy about Sophia Brown out there; I was supportive about it,” Bone said. “That’s what we teach [our] girls. I’ve heard there might be this, there might be that. People are panicked. I said let it be. That’s what we teach. Does it weigh heavy on us? Absolutely.”
Martinez was angered when the incident first took place, and, along with other seniors, has made strides to make change inside the STA community. One of these actions took place one Sunday afternoon, when a several seniors came together and drew uplifting images and quotes throughout the quad.
“I think we felt that [the chalk] obviously wasn’t a solution to what happened, but I think it was a way to kind of bring together our community a little bit and give girls more of a positive outlook moving forward, so that we can then work on learning about it,” Martinez said. “I think that I’d say it is more important that as a community we recognize that it happened and learn from it [rather than discipline those involved more].”
Senior Kate Jones also started a project in hopes of reminding the community of what STA is really about. She’s making a video of past and current students sharing good memories they’ve gained from their time at STA, including alumnae going all the way back to class of 1966.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot of bad press around STA, but before this happened, anyone you talked to who thought about STA would be like ‘Yeah, STA is a great place,’” Jones said. I want to bring that back and bring back the focus on the positive aspects of our school.”
Martinez, who is also a member of Cultural Diversity Committee, said the committee is working to bring in speakers and possibly sell t-shirts, where the money earned would be donated to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.
With the enormity of what this issue has become, Livingston thinks that people forget how strongly this is affecting the nine girls involved. She’s talked with a couple of the girls who were involved in the incident, who have told her how hard it is to go about their day “knowing they caused so much pain to so many people”.
“[One of the girls] said at this point, she’s so emotionally drained, she’s not even crying anymore,” Livingston said. “She said she was numb. It’s not even a matter of them being mad that they did this anymore, it’s like ‘I ruined so many people’s lives’ at least for the time being. It’s more or less like they are past any sadness and it’s all 100 percent guilt all the time.”
The students involved sent out an apology letter, where they explained their guilt and what they plan on doing to move forward to amend their actions. Many, including Marinez, view this apology as necessary to acknowledging and moving past the incident.
“I think that [the apology] was a good start,” Martinez said. “Without them saying that they’re sorry and trying to understand how serious what they did was, without that apology, you can’t really move forward.”
Along with the student initiatives made, administration has also sent out a list of steps the school is taking to ensure this incident is taken as a learning opportunity. The list includes things like the screening of Big Sonia, the story of a Holocaust survivor, and a presentation given by Mindy Corporon, who lost her son and father to the tragic Jewish Community Center shooting.
Bone clearly expressed how important the healing process is in all of this, and how close the community is to reaching it.
“We are listeners,” Bone said with tears in her eyes. “We make mistakes. So it’s a time for us to move on.”