For decades, the Catholic Church has faced criticism for a variety of mistakes made throughout its history. In recent years, the Church has finally responded to numerous sexual assault charges — after numerous cover-ups and the forcing of some dioceses, like that of New York, to declare bankruptcy to cover lawsuit costs.
But after the death of George Floyd, and once the Black Lives Matter movement grew to become one of the largest demonstrations in U.S history (with a record 15-26 million participants) another ongoing issue plaguing the Catholic Church has emerged, specifically in its schools: racism.
Complaints have circulated against Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens for years, but were ignored. According to some students, teachers and classmates say the N-word regularly during school hours — including once over Zoom. Derogatory terms are used against Muslim students, and some students have even gone as far as bullying an Asian teacher, claiming they eat dogs.
Claudia Zurek, a Master’s student at Columbia University’s Teachers College, graduated from Archbishop in 2015. According to Zurek, the faculty did “nothing but protect” racist students, with most offenders only receiving a slap on the wrist. Zurek recalled a friend showing them racist tweets directed at another friend, but revealed the person who wrote them wasn’t even given detention.
“When I graduated, there were maybe three teachers that were not white in the whole school,” Zurek said. “Most students gave up complaining.”
On June 3, 2020, the school released a short statement on Instagram regarding Floyd’s death. According to Zurek, a plethora of negative comments flooded in and the comments were, and remain, disabled. Students and alumni alike responded to these comments by holding their own Black Lives Matter march three days later.
On June 1, 2020, Preston High School, an all-girl’s Catholic high school in the Bronx, released their own statement on Instagram condemning its past actions and announcing a planned live address of concerns about racism. The comments under that post however, were not satisfied with their response.
Countless women, both current students and alumni, shared their own experiences at Preston and complained about the school’s lack of action before George Floyd.
“You are asking students what they can do,” one comment stressed. “Students have been speaking up for years.”
One student recounted hearing students claim Obama “was only winning until the white people get out of work” during his 2008 campaign. Another advocated for the addition of more cultural scholarships after realizing the only one available on their website was from the Columbus Citizens Foundation — which is exclusive to Italian-American students.
“Will you let Muslim women finally wear hijabs,” user maria.tuzuli asked. “Will you directly address problematic staff and students?”
One Black student named Dominique took her own life eight years ago, due to the harassment and bullying she faced during her time at Preston, according to alumni who knew her. Her friend asked that I retract her last name out of respect for the family.
Many women said this bullying was race-related, including Anna Prestopino, who graduated in 2012 and knew Dominique personally.
“That was the first time I really witnessed racism and its repercussions up close,” Prestopino said. “No justice came following her death and the loss of life was one I’ll be sick over forever.”
Multiple sources say Preston allowed the girls involved in Dominique’s death to continue attending the school. Dana Padilla-Vinces, also a member of the 2012 class, added that the school did expel one of the girls, but allowed her back for their junior year.
Preston’s student handbook enforces a zero-tolerance policy for violence and bullying of any kind.
A few months ago, the school came under fire again after firing Dr. Christina Zeoli-Costa, one of the only faculty members to combat the deep problems within the school.
According to one anonymous student, she would “speak out mostly about how students of color got harsher punishments” than white students and complained about the lack of diversity on the school staff. The student who put together a petition to reinstate her also claimed she actively worked to create an on-campus organization for LGBTQ+ students, which was shot down by the administration, and advocated for “adequate” sexual education classes.
The reasoning for the firing? She “was unfit” for the job despite having a doctorate from NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. Some students, however, theorize she was seen as a threat.
“She spoke up to combat the racism, homophobia, religious discrimination, and other issues in this school,” one commenter said. “She gave comfort and security to her students when no one else in the school would! Isn’t that what a leader is?”
The principal of Preston High School, Jane Grendall, did not respond to requests for an interview, but the school did release a letter regarding George Floyd’s death.
Other schools allegedly have problems with allowing hairstyles like cornrows. Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, NY recently came under fire when they banned a third grader from wearing them. In Queens alone, at least 11 Catholic schools forbid hairstyles like cornrows, deeming them “inappropriate.”
The handbook from Christ the King in the Bronx states that “no cultural preferences will be allowed, such as boys with braided hair.” St. John’s, another Bronx school, also bans cornrows, even misspelling it as “corn rolls.”
The Archdiocese of New York, however, upholds these “conditions.” T.J McCormack, spokesman for the archdiocese, claimed “families attending any Catholic school agree to adhere to the terms of the school’s handbook, which include guidelines on hair, wardrobe, and personal conduct.”
It’s important to note that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed S.6209A/A.7797A which bans discminiation of hairstyles for students back in 2019.
However, Catholic institutions have found a way around this. According to David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, Catholic schools are not subject to the same guidelines as public institutions.
“They’re just exempted because they’re religious institutions and can set whatever rules of decorum they wish, no matter how discriminatory or racist,” Bloomfield said.
In response to growing racial tension, the Archdiocese of New York released their own statement against racism on May 31, 2020. In it, they condemn the racially-motivated violence against African Americans and voice their support for the many people protesting it. They also implore we “work together with all members of our community to find that critical cure for human hatred.”
The National Cathollic Education Association (NCEA) have done their own form of damage control.
In a statement on their website, the NCEA continues their narrative of inclusion by calling Catholic schools a place that ‘disrupts racism and injustice’ by nature. “It is the tradition of Gospel values to explore opportunities for incorporating cultural diversity in our schools, and we will continue to do this by uniting faith and reason and by setting our faith as the cornerstone of each lesson taught and each discovery made,” the statement said.
On June 10, 2020, during a web conference called “The Catholic School Response to Systemic Racism,” the NCEA went further into the topic of inclusivity through lesson plans and other activities.
During the conference, music and theater teacher at Our Lady Queen of Angels, Vincent Hale, said he believes inclusivity is the best way toward combating racism in Catholic schools.
“We have to be open-minded to listening to everyone’s perspective,” Hale said. “And that’s how we can go about fostering change, because if we can listen and respond from a place of understanding, then we can work together to make the world a better place.”