Jeneé Osterheldt

For this student, swastika is one piece of unrelenting racism at KC Catholic school

On her first day at St. Teresa’s Academy she took a seat in the back of her class. She’s always been a little soft-spoken and shy.

But she was excited to attend her big cousin’s alma mater, the school she’d heard was all about sisterhood, academic excellence and empowerment. And then it happened.

“I don’t want anyone thinking I’m racist,” her English teacher said, staring at her, “because the black people are sitting in the back.” And he laughed. The whole class laughed. And a few students carried the joke from class to class that first day of school freshman year. That was 2014.

Now Tone’Nae Bradley-Toomer is a senior, one of only four black girls in a class of over 90 students at Kansas City’s private, all-girls Catholic high school. It didn’t get better.

On the first day of school this year, Tone’Nae says, she sat down in her writing class and a student, one of those same students who laughed at her freshman year, said, “Ugh, she’s here.” The student moved across the room and said, “I don’t want to lose brain cells.” Later, in her anatomy class, where she is the only black girl, two girls made it clear they didn’t want to sit near Tone’Nae because they “didn’t want to smell that.”

Tone’Nae has heard jokes about the Ku Klux Klan. Derision about her dislike of the N-word. Dismissal about her concerns.

Fellow black students and St. Teresa’s alumnae told The Star of more subtle racism, of micro-aggressions from classmates. One girl was told she is good at basketball because she is black. Another was told: “You don’t sound black.”

One tried to protest the school’s most infamous incident, September’s swastika beer pong game, by writing a letter to the school newspaper. It was never published.

“Being a minority and going through what I have gone through for three years, you have that guard up,” Tone’Nae tells me, her St. Teresa’s Academy sweater tied around her shoulders, brown eyes filled with concern. “I’m always watching and listening to people. You know they are saying things about you or to you. And there’s always that sense of paranoia that there are certain things you can and cannot say or do as a black person.”

Earlier in September, when she heard about the swastika incident, she was disgusted. But the only thing that shocked her was the minimal punishment.

On Snapchat, some St. Teresa’s juniors had shared party photos, one captioned “Girls night,” where they posed in front of a table with beer pong cups arranged in the shape of a swastika. Their punishment, sources told The Star: one day in-school reflection. That won’t go on their permanent record. These students still went to the school dance. They competed with their sports teams.

“Offenses like this have been going on for quite some time now,” says Tone’Nae, 16. “I just thought because it was so public they would actually do something about it, but they are only focused on PR. The apology letter (from the students to the community) was not sincere. You don’t make a swastika on accident. You don’t get drunk and play an anti-Semitic game. We learned about the Holocaust. We know the connotations.”

When alumnae voiced their outrage and called for expulsion, school president Nan Bone said in a statement: “While we respect your opinion, expulsion is the wrong solution in this situation. We live the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Our students are taught to care for the dear neighbor, ‘neighbor to neighbor, without distinction.’ That teaching guides us in every decision we make.”

But does it? Tone’Nae has a friend who went to McDonald’s for lunch during an assembly and got a three-day suspension. Let that sink in: A Big Mac and some fries is a greater offense than anti-Semitism and underage drinking. The St. Teresa’s Academy handbook breaks down student misconduct into categories. Category I offenses are “very serious and cause concern because they are detrimental to the safety and well-being of the student and/or the school. Behaviors from this category will cause administrators to consider immediate expulsion. If a student is retained, there will be immediate consequences.”

Drinking, drugs, truancy and violence fall under Category I. But racist remarks and harassment, which should be considered “detrimental to safety,” fall under Category II. In Atlanta, a student was expelled for playing swastika beer pong, a game called “Jews vs. Nazis.” I’m not on the expulsion bandwagon. But I want to know why a hefty suspension wasn’t the right solution.

First steps

Phone calls and emails to Bone and Liz Baker, the school’s principal for student affairs, were not returned.

But in the wake of community backlash, on Tuesday St. Teresa’s announced to parents a number of initiatives to educate against discrimination. On Wednesday, the junior class was sent to a mandatory healing retreat.

On Thursday, the Center for Conflict Resolution was on campus to continue the healing process. The STA community was invited to Sunday’s “Stand Together KC” forum at Church of the Resurrection. Next Tuesday, the junior class will attend the play “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Student Sit-Ins of 1960” at the Coterie Theatre. And Oct. 9, the entire school will watch “Big Sonia,” a documentary about Sonia Warshawski of Prairie Village, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. Students from Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy will also attend.

These are important first steps. And they look good on paper. Especially as we enter National Bullying Prevention Month. But really, are the students, as Bone said, taught to care for their dear neighbor anymore?

Tone’Nae’s aunt, Carla Smocks, sent an email to the school after this year’s first-day frustrations. Administrators investigated, and Baker assured them in an email that the bullying would “cease and desist.” She also formed a “safe place for African American students to gather,” a monthly lunch group. Because segregated lunch heals?

But the parents of the accused wanted a mediation. And then the bullies wanted an apology, saying Tone’Nae speaking out would make it hard for them to get letters of recommendation. The mediator advised her to apologize to her bullies. Her aunt said no.

“We believe in forgiveness, but there still has to be consequences, and the consequences have to rehabilitate,” Smocks says. “We aren’t bashing St. Teresa’s. I know kids will do things. I don’t expect things to be perfect because it’s an all-girls Catholic school. But you expect love. Love thy brother as thyself.”

Tone’Nae lost her parents to a car crash when she was 8 years old. Her Aunt Carla and Uncle Frank have cared for her since then. Their daughter Keisha attended St. Teresa’s, and Tone’Nae wanted to follow that path since she first saw the big girls in their plaid uniforms. So every weekday she makes the commute from their south Overland Park home to the school at 56th and Main streets.

Smocks is now co-chair of Star Galaxy, St. Teresa’s parent diversity initiative. Since Keisha graduated in 2003, she says, the change in school culture is startling.

“I feel like we have gone backwards,” she says. “It was a school that taught girls to be young women, to have respect and be a force for social justice. I have watched Keisha flourish. I have watched her go to college, get her master’s and watched her flourish in her career, and she attributes it all to St. Teresa’s Academy.”

‘Things had changed’

Keisha’s class took part in the greater alumnae effort to #TransformSTA after the swastika incident and wrote a letter to the St. Teresa’s community: “Institutional changes have diminished the school’s diversity, limited the number of working-class girls who can afford to attend, and reduced the emphasis on social justice values and Catholic social teaching,” it read in part.

One of those classmates, Rickeena Holloway, is now a math teacher in New York. “I cannot imagine being a student right now at St. Teresa’s,” she said by phone. “There is no way I’d be comfortable. We were taught to be professional women, to be feminists, to be a sister.”

They have been in one another’s weddings, and when she comes home to Kansas City to visit, she calls them first.

“I had heard things had changed, but I did not know to what extent and in this way,” she says. “In terms of diversity, there has always been work to do at St. Teresa’s. There were micro-aggressions, like a typical life being a minority in an office setting.

“I played basketball, and there were comments that made it seem like it came natural to me because I’m black, like it wasn’t because I played year-round. … But I never felt like any of my friends were coming from a place of hate. It was more like they just didn’t know. … What is happening there now would have never happened then. I don’t believe this popped out of the blue.”

And it didn’t. Tone’Nae has been experiencing it for almost four years. “Normally, I kind of brace myself for the history classes or things like that just in case we talk about black history or anything about race because I know there is going to be that person or multiple people that are going to say something ignorant.”

Like the time her class watched the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and after the Ku Klux Klan scene, one girl turned to another and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did that for Halloween?”

Or when her class read “Huckleberry Finn” and the inevitable N-word discussion came up. Tone’Nae said the word, whether in the novel or in casual use today, is inappropriate, period. A classmate’s response: “Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you know everything about black culture.”

During a Cultural Diversity Committee assembly on cultural appropriation, white students were angered, saying things like, “White privilege isn’t real, it’s just a way for black people to victimize themselves.”

After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Tone’Nae and other students wanted to formally pray for him. The school said no. But a week later the school said a formal prayer for police. Doesn’t everyone deserve grace?

‘You don’t sound black’

McKenzie Grimaldi, who says she was one of seven black girls in the 2016 graduating class, remembers the prayers for the police but doesn’t remember any discussions of Brown at St. Teresa’s.

She says she had a great time and a great group of friends there. But she thinks the fact that her parents are white played a part.

“If your parents are white, they think you have more money,” says McKenzie. “The popular girls all grew up together. All of their parents have a ton of money. They want to be friends with you if you can go out and do nice things. People at St. Teresa’s think because someone is black they don’t have a lot of money and can’t do the things they do, and that wasn’t the case for me.”

Still, there were the stereotypes and tokenism.

The school often chose her for promotional photo shoots, in which she was regularly seated next to the palest girl with the red hair. Hey, diversity! And students would tell her, “You don’t sound black” and “You’re the whitest person I’ve ever met.”

“I didn’t realize until the end of my senior year how that affected me and that it wasn’t a thing to act as it is to be black. They associate being black with being ghetto, being ratchet and out of control.”

McKenzie says she wasn’t shocked by the swastika incident, but the light punishment was confusing. Arinna Hoffine, a 2015 graduate who is Jewish, agrees.

“One of my friends posted about drinking off campus, and she was punished with a lot of in-school suspension, counseling, and it did go on her record,” Arinna says. “So how do they get less punishment with a hate symbol involved? … I don’t think the school has their priorities straight. They need to make sure the school is safe for everyone.”

Arinna remembers St. Teresa’s as a happy, supportive place with no anti-Semitism. But she worries about her younger sister, a freshman who is half Native American.

“I took more advantage of the opportunities I had there than in any other setting, but my sister feels super uncomfortable. I think she’s just aware of her status in society and she’s aware that it’s predominantly rich, white people at St. Teresa’s Academy.”

She fears that the political landscape is igniting trouble.

“There is so much division in the political sphere, and after the election it’s a lot more acceptable to be racist,” Arinna says. “It’s sad to see it crossing in STA. I know it’s not diverse, but everyone should feel welcome there.”

But as all of these St. Teresa’s students have pointed out: “everyone” isn’t really there. Last year, St. Teresa’s reported that of 587 students, 493 were white, 36 were Hispanic, 21 were multiracial, 20 were black and 17 were Asian. As for faculty and staff: 82 are white, one is black and nine are Hispanic.

“I am extremely apprehensive”

The academy handbook addresses diversity and inclusion:

We expect:

▪ persons to appreciate and respect the cultural and ethnic heritages of others

▪ persons to be proud of their ancestries and traditions

▪ persons to share themselves, their experiences and their perspectives with all people

▪ no individual to speak for or represent an entire cultural/ethnic group

▪ families to bear their responsibility to educate their children about the positive aspects of diversity, varied contributions and interdependence of all people

The result of living by these guidelines is a school community where people learn without feelings of fear, intimidation or superiority towards different racial/ethnic groups. We value the cooperation, acceptance and trust of this community.

Tone’Nae doesn’t learn without feelings of intimidation. And neither does the white student who bravely told on the swastika beer pongers. That student’s friend Katie Gregory told radio station KCUR she was being harassed.

Students and parents are so fearful of backlash that they were scared to talk to The Star. In an email, one girl said she couldn’t go on the record because, “I am extremely apprehensive because I’m on scholarship at STA and to be quite frank, I need STA more than they need me. Same goes for the girl who went to administration.”

Faith Andrews-O’Neal, a black student at St. Teresa’s, tried to protest in a letter to the school newspaper, The Dart: “This was much more than a joke, it was hurtful, and alarming, and should be treated as such,” she wrote. “I should not feel like an outsider in the land I was born and raised in. I should not feel unsafe or undervalued in communities I value and cherish myself.”

The school paper declined to publish the letter.

Does that sound like a culture of cooperation and acceptance? Maybe that’s why fewer than 10 people showed up to protest the lack of punishment Sept. 22. Tone’Nae was one of the protestors.

The thing is, she’s not an angry black girl. She has the right to be. And even if she were, she’d deserve to be treated with humanity. But Tone’Nae isn’t the mad, self-victimizing girl she’s been stereotyped as. She’s a soft-spoken teen who watches “The Office,” and her go-to song is Australian pop-rock group Silverchair’s “Across the Night.” She’s vice president of the Cultural Diversity Committee, a member of the STA Singers advanced choir. For the last three years, she’s earned the Presidential Service Award and won the Mad for Plaid fashion design contest.

“I am able to let out my frustration and my sadness in sewing and creativity,” she tells me one afternoon at Starbucks, sipping a Pumpkin Spice Frappucino and playing with her class ring. “I stay for the quality of education and the opportunities I am being exposed to. I can’t let them win. And I know that there are a few other African-Americans here. I want to act as an example or a mentor to them.”

The front of the student handbook includes a poem by St. Teresa of Avila: “In this house, all must be friends, all must be loved, all must be held dear, all must be helped.”

But at St. Teresa’s Academy, this house is divided.

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star columnist: 816-234-4380,@jeneeinkc