Opinion

A Student Response to the Criticisms Against Columbus Academy

Reading time: 15 minutes

Our names are Jaswanth, Lindsey, Saketh, Raaghuv, and Charlotte, and we are students who have attended Columbus Academy (CA) throughout high school or longer. Although our school has been portrayed as an unfair and indoctrinating institution by parents Andrea Gross and Amy Gonzalez and media outlets such as FOX News and the Daily Mail, we know our school to be an inclusive and supportive environment for all. As students of CA, we can most directly speak to the supposed teachers’ “indoctrination,” students’ bullying based on political beliefs, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

Parents Andrea Gross and Amy Gonzalez appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on July 6th, 2021. (Fox News)

But first, what exactly happened between Gross, Gonzalez, and Columbus Academy? In January, these two CA parents started a movement called the “Pro CA Coalition,” and on February 4th, they sent a letter to Columbus Academy’s Board of Trustees and Leadership stating their grievances. At its inception, Pro CA had little to do with critical race theory. Instead, their 4 main issues with the school were:

  1. Intimidation and bullying of students at CA based on political ideology
  2. The lack of open-minded and diverse leadership at CA that led to marginalized groups
  3. The lack of transparency among CA leadership
  4. Structural flaws that create lack of accountability for the first three issues

Along with their letter, signed by 160 parents and alumni, they posted an appendix of specific incidents experienced by CA parents and students to support the 4 issues they’ve already outlined. Throughout this appendix, Critical Race Theory and its underlying ideas are mentioned only once briefly. When the initial 17-page letter came out, the school felt that there were some valid concerns and welcomed the idea of open discussion and controlled conversations to improve the school. In fact, the Board even met with the leaders of the coalition and formed parameters through which CA can improve.

Caption: The first two pages of a letter sent from the Board of Trustees to CA parents on March 4, 2021. In it, the Board explains they have met with Pro CA Representatives and have convened multiple times to discuss how to use the letter to improve the school. (Columbus Academy)

However, once Pro CA representatives went on national news outlets and podcasts and continued to criticize CA, thus endangering faculty members, the school’s willingness to work with the coalition faded. Our head of school, Melissa Soderberg, had to hire private security and the school enhanced its own security. Despite the increase in security, there were never bomb sniffing dogs on campus, which Pro CA claimed were there on national media. Pro CA was reluctant to work collaboratively with the school and never provided solutions to the problems they pointed out. They simply wanted certain teachers and faculty members fired.

As Columbus Academy students who also write for Politics Made Simple, we have the opportunity to share our own experiences on this platform regarding the grievances Pro CA had against our school. The main 4 we will discuss are:

  1. The MLK Walkout & Teaching Critical Race Theory
  2. Bullying of Students Because of Political Beliefs
  3. Keeping Politics Out of Learning
  4. Lack of Diversity & Inclusion
(The Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism)

1: The MLK walkout & Teaching Critical Race Theory

Lindsey: During the segment about Columbus Academy in Fox News, it was stated that these three students were expelled for their parents opposing Critical Race Theory. However, in the initial 17-page letter & appendix that Pro CA sent out to the board of administration, Critical Race Theory was only mentioned once. Here is the quote: 

Does CA leadership agree with Dr. Kendi that all people are racist? Or that Capitalism is racism? It appears that many initiatives being shared with our faculty, parents, and students involve principles of Critical Race Theory. Does the school adopt and support the teachings of Critical Race Theory? 

Critical Race Theory (CRT) examines laws involving race and how these laws and practices have shaped American society. It does not claim that all white people are racist, but rather that there is institutionalized racism in our country because of the way our laws are structured, a pretty undeniable fact. For example, when I took AP United States History last year, we learned how the 13th amendment has led to mass incarceration and disproportionately affected black Americans. Regardless, CRT was not one of Pro CA’s top priorities. Fox News used this controversial theory as a way to garner viewers and attract more support, by tilting their segment as “students expelled for their mothers opposing CRT”.

However, the three students were not expelled, they were declined re-enrollment. Their parents clearly violated the enrollment contract they signed the previous year. They threatened to withhold payments until their demands were met (which they admitted to on the “Blunt Force Truth” podcast), endangered students and faculty (the comments on Columbus Academy’s Instagram and Twitter accounts prove this), and attempted to redirect charitable donations to the school. All of this clearly violates the enrollment contract, and subjects them to declined re-enrollment.

Raaghuv: Secondly, in their original letter & appendix, Pro CA expressed concerns against a civil disobedience walkout held by Academy students in honor of MLK. For those who are unaware about what this walkout was, on the last day of school before MLK Day, students were put into groups to discuss the Civil Rights movement and watch videos talking about how far black rights have progressed in this country and how far they still have to go. During one of these videos, a small group of CA student leaders ‘interrupted’ the video and urged Upper School students to practice civil disobedience and walkout of their classrooms without looking at or telling their teachers why, similar to how civil rights protesters of the 60’s and 70’s ignored authorities during their own walkouts. A few minutes later, the students interrupted the video a second time and again asked if students would join them in walking out; at the end of the second interruption, they asked the students who joined the second time to consider why they didn’t join the walkout during the first video interruption.

Of course, the video interruption and walkout was staged, and the CA administration had already known the act of civil disobedience would happen. The walkout was intended to be a clever, unique way to honor MLK’s legacy by having students experience a small taste of how protesters felt in a real walkout, but Pro CA argued it was too divisive. 

The Pro CA Coalition’s emblem (Pro CA/procacoalition.com)

Pro CA’s 2 main concerns with the walkout were that it encouraged students to miss academics and that students were pressured to walkout even if they didn’t want to, as many of the coalition’s parents said their children were called ‘racists’ if they chose not to walkout or came during the second interruption. 

Pro CA’s claim that the walkout urged students to miss academics is completely false and is a perfect example of how a parent-led coalition does not understand school activities and school culture as well as students do. The walkout happened during a block of time that was specifically dedicated to honoring MLK and NOT during actual class time. It was simply just another activity in the block that students could choose to attend if they wanted to. Had they chosen to stay back, they would still be discussing MLK’s legacy and watching videos related to the Civil Rights Movement. 

The coalition’s other concern was that their children felt pressured to walkout, and those who either chose not to attend or who were late to attend were called “racist.” I can see how some pressure may have been instigated by students, but that was not a CA inspired, approved, or systemic move taken against students and it’s something the school has no control over. Additionally, as one of the students who attended the walkout that day during the first video interruption, I did not hear anyone yelling “silence is violence” or calling others “racist.” I only heard others sharing personal experiences of racism and educating us on how to be more inclusive and on stopping any unconscious biases we might have. Afterwards, I asked my peers who attended the walkout if they overheard the language described in the Appendix really did happen, and their answer was a unanimous no. Calling others ‘racist,’ though, is not okay. It is completely possible that a student may have overheard a rude or ill-intentioned comment made by another student, and that should be unacceptable. CA strives to be an accepting and inclusive environment for everyone, and any bullying like that should be stopped. If teachers were to more consistently look for and call out bullying within the student body, it would go a long way to making people feel more comfortable.

2: Bullying of Students Because of Political Beliefs

Jaswanth: This is a real problem within CA’s student body, and I’m happy Pro CA advocated for it in its early stages, although it has recently switched focus toward stopping the teaching of Critical Race Theory at our school. At a place where the student body skews left in political beliefs, it’s imperative to help conservative students feel comfortable sharing their own opinions both in and out of classrooms. In my experience, the reason Republican students don’t feel comfortable sharing their views is because of mockery & teasing from their peers outside of class. I myself have witnessed instances of bullying by liberal students against openly conservative students, whether it be whispering “watch out for ____, he’s a Trump supporter,” or associating a certain conservative student with also being a racist or misogynist, or openly mocking their beliefs to their face and passing it all off as teasing or “just a joke.” Pro CA has provided more instances in its appendix when students were mistreated based on their political beliefs. 

In my opinion, the solution to this form of bullying needs to come from the teachers. While all of my teachers make efforts to cultivate a more welcoming atmosphere for civil discourse, most only maintain this atmosphere in their classrooms. They often don’t call students out for insulting conservative students when not in-class. The prevalence of this bullying stems not from teachers’ treatment or their “indoctrination” of students while teaching, but from students’ bullying outside of classrooms and from teachers’ reluctance to step in to correct students’ behavior. 

In my opinion, CA needs to push teachers to enforce the school’s welcoming atmosphere outside of the classroom by calling out students who mock others’ political beliefs and correcting them so that those students know that their behavior makes some of their peers feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. In addition, similar to how CA invites speakers and holds community group discussions over uncomfortable topics of race and sexuality, our school needs to have these discussions over political opinions and an atmosphere of inclusivity as well. 

3: Keeping Politics Out of Learning

Charlotte: The appendix released by the Pro CA Coalition contains a wide variety of grievances against the school and its administration, from bullying to academics to lack of transparency. A few of their examples and arguments struck me as alarming, and I agree that there are issues within the school that need to be addressed, like intimidation in and out of classrooms based on political opinions. Another concern that I noticed was brought up several times was that too much classroom time is being wasted talking about politics or current events instead of learning. From my experience, all of my teachers allowed conversations centered around important political events to come up naturally and they all were student-driven discussions. Not once did I have a teacher instigate a discussion about politics or force anyone to participate in a controversial conversation.

That being said, I believe that these types of dialogues are important to have as students as we develop into more independent individuals. We have to be conscious of the world around us, and when major events happen like a presidential election or the January 6th attack on the Capitol, it is necessary for students to discuss these critical and historical moments in our country to help us further understand the world we live in. After any conversation that I had about current events in a classroom, I always left with more knowledge about the topic, and more importantly, I never had a class where we skipped a lesson because we talked about politics for too long. 

The letter also proposed an example of when the 2020 presidential election was discussed in a first grade classroom; the teacher asked what candidate the students would vote for in the election. Back in the 2012 and the 2016 elections I was also asked this question by my teachers, and I was given a ballot to cast my vote — I was 8 and 12 respectively. Furthermore, at this time I was not a student at Columbus Academy, I attended a public school. This experience is not an example of indoctrinating children at Academy, it is merely a teaching mechanism to get kids involved with and understand our country’s electoral process.

Additionally, at the first grade level, so about 6 years old, I believe it is safe to assume that the kids have a very rudimentary comprehension of politics and even who the candidates are. When I voted in my class’ fake election in 2012, I voted for Mitt Romney because he looked like my dad; I did not know what Democrats stood for, and I did not know what values Republicans stood for, I simply was too young to grapple with those concepts. Again, asking kids to pick a presidential candidate is not a means of indoctrination, it is just a well-intentioned way to enhance children’s comprehension of how elections work in America.

The Pro CA Coalition also has a category in their appendix titled “Failure to Focus on Academic Excellence.” As an Upper School student, I can safely say that academic excellence is truly the school’s main goal. We have 100% of our school’s graduates attend college, and many attend extremely prestigious universities. There was concern that students are not taking enough AP classes, but Academy offers more AP classes than many other schools in the area, and taking these advanced level classes is voluntary. The amount of AP classes students take on average per year is not dictated by the administration, it is whether the students are signing up for the class or not. Columbus Academy offers an intellectually challenging curriculum that certainly allows for all students to pick the level of classes they desire; a student is welcome to take all standard level classes if they so choose, or all AP and advanced classes if they choose.

According to the 2020-21 Columbus Academy student profile, out of the 228 students taking an AP exam, 206 received scores of 3 or above, which is 90% of the students: for reference, the national average amount of students who get a 3 or above is 60%. Additionally, the mean SAT score of the class of 2020 was a 1346, compared to a national average of 1051, and the mean ACT score was a 29 compared to a national average of roughly 21. Given our school’s reputation and track-record for academics, I believe it is safe to say that Columbus Academy is focused on helping students achieve their academic goals. Coming from a public school to CA as a sophomore, I can attest to the rigor of the courses offered at Academy. Every class has an engaging, mentally stimulating, and diverse curriculum that forces us to grow and become better students. The level of academics offered at Academy is unparalleled compared to other schools in the area, and really, most of the country.

Raaghuv: Additionally, it has been stated by Pro CA that Columbus Academy’s alleged sanction on the discussion of political topics has been to “intimidate and indoctrinate” students into adopting liberal ideologies. In their appendix, they’ve also said that students have no ability to voice their opinions or discuss their true feelings on political issues if it wasn’t a liberal opinion, or that they feared getting a bad grade if they voiced their true opinions. As someone who frequently participates in and has arranged voluntary student-led discussions, this isn’t the case at all. At CA’s Upper School, current events are voluntarily discussed by politically passionate students, from both sides of the aisle. Of course, there may be more liberal voices than conservative ones, but that is merely because there are more liberal than conservative students at Academy. 

We have both a Conservative and Liberal club at our school, and they both have regular meetings, inviting anyone from the school to come and talk about current events and their thoughts on it, with all opinions being able to be voiced. These meetings are completely optional, student-led meetings for anyone to attend and talk about things. To say that the CA administration has forcefully created discussions about politics and that they haven’t allowed conservative voices to be heard is a gross misinterpretation of passionate students who want to be future leaders and take the initiative to allow everyone to be heard. I am the Chapter President of one of the largest clubs at Academy: JSA. JSA is a nationwide, bi-partisan, student-run organization that has a large membership, not because anyone at CA or in other schools are forcing politics into the curriculum, but rather because there are a significant number of students who care about the state of our country and want to discuss it.

As President of JSA, I’ve worked with Liberal Club and Conservative Club this past year to arrange multiple Community Cafes (student-led open discussions of current events that students & teachers can choose to attend during free periods) where students & teachers from both sides of the aisle voice their opinions and have meaningful discussions. These weren’t debates or places where only one argument was heard but instead was a bi-partisan space where students could go in their free time and discuss current events. In all the Cafes that I’ve led, there has been healthy representation from all 3 clubs. Claiming these discussions are being done by teachers during class in place of regular academic work not not only undermines the real work our teachers do in-class, but it also undermines the work students and teachers do to create safe and accepting spaces for anyone to come out and speak at. 

4: Lack of Diversity and Inclusion

Jaswanth: This is yet another example of the Pro CA coalition addressing an important issue with good intentions, but it became overshadowed by the coalition’s PR campaign against Critical Race Theory at Academy. As they mention in their appendix, they want greater inclusion of Latino and Hispanic people on both the Board of Trustees and the student body. I’m confident that this is a measure that CA can take steps toward, especially given that our school prides itself (rightfully so) in its diversity and the number of staff dedicated to nourishing that diversity.

Saketh: In their appendix, Pro CA also mentioned that many of Academy’s African American students have been called the ‘N’ word and pressured to hand out the ‘N pass,’ giving non-black kids “permission” to also say the ‘N’ word. I personally agree with the Pro CA Coalition in the matter that there is some racial tension at our school, but the reality is that this tension is not something CA alone must resolve. It lingers in all places across America and is something that all schools, public and private, must work toward. In my two years of high school so far, I’ve seen Academy take positive steps toward ensuring CA students realize how offensive saying the ‘N’ word is, between inviting many guest speakers to discuss race and punishing students (to some degree) who have been caught saying the word. Of course, more can be done. This is one of those issues which must be solved with collaborative thinking and a common objective between everyone in the CA community. I am very hopeful that this will happen, but unfortunately, these issues will go unsolved if there is continued division within the CA Community.

Conclusion

Lindsey: I am a rising senior at Columbus Academy and I have attended since Kindergarten. I truly love and appreciate Columbus Academy. The faculty and staff are incredible. I have always felt supported by my teachers, whether that’s meeting outside of class for extra help or helping me write an essay for another class or outside of school. I know that all the teachers at Columbus Academy want to see me reach my full potential. That is why it is frustrating to hear parents excessively slander my school’s reputation and threaten the quality of my education. It is terrifying to read tweets of random people saying they should “go in and kill all the teachers teaching critical race theory.”

The Pro CA Coalition’s campaign against Columbus Academy has endangered students and faculty; the social media comments alone prove this. When the coalition released their initial letter & appendix in February, there were some points I agreed with. There should be more diverse representation on our Board of Trustees and students should feel more comfortable sharing their opinion. I believe the school as well felt these concerns were valid and that there should be an open conversation. However, once specific names were given on a national podcast and Pro CA members said they should “attack individuals,” my opinion of this group changed vastly. At this point, it seems like this group cares more about chasing fame than actually making a positive change in our school. 

Sources

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: