Catonsville High School student organizers lead a Black Lives Matter protest rally at their high school.
When Adonna Patterson’s alma mater joined a chorus of institutions condemning racism last month, she responded with a denouncement of her own: “Let me collect my thoughts before I really expose y’all for who you are.”
Before the 25-year-old could write down the discrimination she says she experienced as a student at The Catholic High School of Baltimore, dozens of fellow Black alumnae began commenting with their own memories of racism below the private school’s Facebook and Instagram statement. Their comments recounted instances when white classmates used racial slurs on social media but weren’t disciplined, or when administrators seemed unable to relate to the experiences of their Black students.
Patterson and other Catholic High graduates say their sore memories turned into fresh outrage when they discovered their comments were being deleted from the school’s social media accounts. And several alumnae said their accounts were blocked completely from viewing the school’s Instagram.
In recent weeks, some Baltimore-area students and recent graduates have harnessed personal recollections of discrimination to craft roadmaps for reform. Though Catholic High and other schools proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” some adult alumni say that convincing their alma mater to listen to their experiences of bias and racism has been an uphill battle.
Catholic High President Barbara Nazelrod and other administrators declined interview requests from The Baltimore Sun concerning the alumnae allegations.
The East Baltimore private school confirmed it hid comments from view, including those that named individuals, included obscenities or, in one case, threatened to burn the school, school officials said in a statement. The social media posts have since been deleted, but the statement condemning racism remains on the school website.
“Catholic High maintains its unequivocal commitment to promoting an environment where all students feel respected, empowered, and valued regardless of their ethnicity, gender, race, ability, or background,” school officials said in a statement.
The school has pledged to expand its strategic plan for diversity and to hold school events and programs that promote diversity.
“We don’t want to go back and forth over the experiences we had,” Patterson said of the incident. “We know we had them. I understand you may not want your school to be talked about like that, but this is the truth.”
Since the death of George Floyd in May after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, a national movement to weed out systemic racism has erupted across the country. The movement — timed with a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities — has some Americans reflecting how biases permeate sectors including law enforcement, health care and, of late, education.
Similar reckonings like the one at Catholic High are popping up across the region’s public and private schools and universities. A Loyola University Maryland student recently collected stories of racism from about 20 unnamed students on the Baltimore campus and posted them in an Instagram video.
“They just don’t believe Black girls. We just deal with it and bottle it up, and then George Floyd is the powder keg that just causes it to explode.”
Delisha Thompson, a 2010 Catholic High graduate who spoke out last week about racism at the school
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And Baltimore County youth held a protest Wednesday at Catonsville High School to push for reform in public education. The youth compiled a list of demands for administrators, including curriculum updates, mandatory bias training for faculty, eliminating police in schools and desegregating some schools.
As Patterson’s comments were disappearing from Catholic High’s social media accounts, she sent a message demanding action to the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the religious order that sponsors the school. The school does not fall under the purview of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Instead, Patterson said, a representative of the order asked for access to her personal social media account — which she declined to grant. The religious order did not return requests for comment.
“They just don’t believe Black girls,” said Delisha Thompson, a 2010 Catholic High graduate who spoke out last week about racism at the school. “We just deal with it and bottle it up, and then George Floyd is the powder keg that just causes it to explode.”
Rising Catonsville High School senior Bethlehem Wolde believes there is a widespread need to reform racial inequity in the United States, but that the effort should begin with education.
“I think people don’t realize the connection [education] has and how big of a risk factor it is,” Bethlehem said. “It’s the information we’re learning and carrying with us for the rest of our lives.”
In December, the 16-year-old conducted a research project for her childhood development course that studied the perception of fairness in punishment at her own school.
For the project, Bethlehem surveyed more than 100 schoolmates and found that 89% believed students of certain ethnicities are punished more severely than other students. A majority of respondents also agreed that the consequences of those punishments can hurt how students view themselves.
According to Bethlehem’s paper, one Black student responded to the survey that “teachers already carry the assumption that I’m going to be loud and disrupt the class. Teachers often get a lot more defensive when they talk to me and be very quick to call me out on things.”
In 2014, the Baltimore County school system established a department dedicated to equity and cultural proficiency, meaning an understanding of students with diverse cultural backgrounds. Since then, director Lisa Williams said, she has overseen racial equity training for more than 7,500 county schools faculty and staff. The school system has about 18,000 employees, she said.
County schools spokesman Brandon Oland said that beginning July 8 administrators are planning a series of public discussions on race and racism within the school system.
In Baltimore City, Baltimore School for the Arts students led a protest through the city in early June to ask school leaders to change a curriculum they believe glosses over the struggles of Black people in history. The schools chief is expected to meet with them soon. The school system also has an administrator in charge of equity who has been training staff and teachers.
Many of the Baltimore-area protests and calls for racial reform in education are drawing directly from the authority and experiences of Black students and alumni.
Bethlehem’s research paper became a reference for crafting the list of demands at the center of the Catonsville High protest, she said. It also earned her high marks for her class assignment.
And two days after the comments section exploded beneath Catholic High’s social media statement condemning racism, more than 20 Black alumnae gathered on a Zoom call to collect accounts of bias at the institution. Women representing more than a decade of graduating classes described the four-hour call as emotionally grueling and eye-opening.
One attendee, Danielle Hipkins, recounted on the call how her victorious election as junior class president in 2010 was spoiled when she discovered that white classmates were calling her the n-word on social media and lamenting that they would be served “watermelon and chicken boxes at prom,” she said.
“To me, this isn’t about digging up old bones,” Hipkins said of the grassroots effort among Catholic High alumnae. “It’s for all the young women behind us, who are Black and white. We’re sisters. But if you don’t see my color, you don’t see me.”
Alumna Delonna Ford joined Patterson around 2012 to approach Catholic High administrators with concerns that several white students had been using the n-word on social media. An administrator pointed out that the racial slur was being quoted from a song lyric and asked whether there was a difference between spelling the term with an “a” versus an “er,” Ford said this week.
In a statement, school officials said they had no knowledge of the incident.
“I felt like they couldn’t relate to us,” Ford said of the incident. “Nothing was going to get through their heads. They didn’t think it was wrong.”
Several weeks later, Patterson said, she was suspended for an innocuous social media post that she sent during school hours — a violation of school rules — but the white students who had used the racial slur were not, both alumnae said.
Catholic High officials cannot comment on disciplinary action involving students, according to a statement.
Alumnae compiled the grievances from the Zoom call into a 25-page document alongside suggested anti-racism resources and handed it to administrators and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. More than 50 alumnae, including graduates from the class of 2020, delivered a similar set of recommendations to the school June 16.
Catholic High administrators said the school sanctioned the virtual meeting of alumnae “to learn more about their experiences.” The meeting minutes included first-time reporting from complaints dating 10 years, administrators said in a statement.
Two alumnae who were on the Zoom call met with Catholic High leaders June 22 to discuss concerns and “to share information about the school’s past, current and future diversity and inclusivity efforts,” according to the school.
As a result of the meeting, Catholic High administrators said, they plan to implement several diversity efforts informed by the perceptions and experiences of alumni. The plans include expanding the school’s culture and diversity council to include alumnae, faculty and families, who will be provided opportunities to report to the school’s board of trustees and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
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“It should be noted that The Catholic High School of Baltimore provides 70% of tuition assistance to 30% of its students, most of whom are students of color,” a school representative said in a statement. “This is but one example of the school’s commitment and desire to attract and welcome a diverse student population.”
Still, some Catholic High alumnae are frustrated that Black women, not the school’s leaders, are propelling the conversations.
“I’m glad that alumni are taking this upon themselves, but it’s a ton of emotional labor and regular labor,” said Danielle Robinson, a member of the alumnae association who helped moderate the Zoom call.
Other Catholic High alumnae were reluctant to say they believe their testimonies will result in meaningful change.
“I think if anything was to come out of this, I’d want to warn Black parents about that school,” Ford said. “I wasn’t sitting there to be hopeful. ... I was sitting there to express what I went through.”