Classes cancelled for Sewickley Academy Senior School after chaos, staff member’s firing

SEWICKLEY, Pa. — Sewickley Academy has cancelled all Senior School classes on Friday, March 4, after a chaotic day in school Thursday.

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Several students at Sewickley Academy formed the group “CARE at Sewickley,” which stands for Collective Action for Representative Education at Sewickley. They created a petition calling for change at the academy and over 100 students have signed it.

On Thursday morning, students said school administrators told students the petition would not stand as many students had supposedly been forced into signing it.

The CARES group said when 25 of them, including parents and teachers, took the petition to the administration Thursday and demanded a meeting, things escalated too far. Students said the tense situation left some of them shaking and crying.

“Right now, we have a culture of fear and toxicity, especially with recent firings of teachers,” senior Madeleine Wren tells Channel 11.

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“As a freshman, I feel really scared to go back to school,” Nora Faraci said. “The teachers I feel are allies to me have been fired or don’t want to return.”

Students in that meeting said police were called and a teacher was fired right in front of them.

“He looked directly in the eyes of a Black student and said ‘call the Edgeworth police,’” Madeleine Wren said of a school administrator.

It’s scary to call the police on Black students,” Ryen Harrison adds. “That was a scary situation that put a lot of fear in my heart, my classmates’ hearts.”

Lisa Wren is a parent who was in that tense meeting with her daughter.

“It was devastating to see kids treated like this,” Wren said. “I couldn’t believe it. Honestly, I’m still in shock.”

Georgia Cox, a senior at Sewickley Academy, said her advisor, who was comforting students, was asked to leave by a higher-up.

“His response was ‘you’re fired,’” Cox explains. “He fired her right there, in front of all of us.”

Naomi Wigley said she’s not associated with this group and as a biracial student, she has had a very different experience — one where school feels safe and inclusive.

“I think there’s a lot of unnecessary chaos at the school,” Wigley said.

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Wigley said teachers were screaming and cursing at each other and students were affected by it, taking away from what’s most important — their education.

“A lot of kids were shaking,” Wigley continued. “I was shaking. Kids were calling their parents. It was very stressful.”

Sewickley Academy shared the following statement with Channel 11 News:

“Please know that at Sewickley Academy, we have always encouraged our community to voice their ideas and help take our learning to new heights. However, such initiatives must be done in a constructive and inclusive manner. For this reason, we are extremely saddened by the recent events at the Academy and members of our community’s choice to voice their opinions in an unproductive manner that has also turned our once safe space into one that feels anything but that. This is not in line with our core values and is counterproductive as we look to build a better Academy for the future.”

Some students at Sewickley Academy said that despite senior high classes being canceled Friday, they’re still going to conduct a walkout.

Late Thursday night, school officials released the following letter to Channel 11:

Dear Sewickley Academy Community,

It is with the utmost disappointment that I am writing to share with you an incident that happened on campus this morning. Today’s activities were not reflective of the Academy and our core values.

Tensions have been heightened on campus this academic year, particularly within the Senior School. I have listened to many views and voices throughout the year, and I have worked hard to foster and build our community at Sewickley Academy. Last week, I notified the Senior School families that certain Senior School faculty members had inappropriately shared information about personnel changes with students both in and outside of the classroom. I began today with a discussion with some of those faculty members, as well as several Board members, in an effort to determine a productive and collaborative manner in which to ease the tension through the final trimester of the school year. This discussion also included a request that an unsanctioned opt-in session focused on Critical Race Theory (CRT) planned by certain faculty members for lunchtime today be postponed until a later date.

Sewickley Academy has offered numerous diversity, equity, and inclusion-related initiatives throughout the school year with more planned prior to Summer Break. With all of these programs and plans already underway, the Board of Trustees and I expressed concern to the faculty that their planned opt-in may deviate from our efforts to strengthen our community. CRT is a complex subject, and we believe it is important that any potential discussion of this topic coordinate with all of the work and progress we have been making. As an institution devoted to academic excellence, it is also important that any discussion about CRT be presented in a responsible manner by professionals with the appropriate qualifications.

To that end, rather than proceed with the opt-in, we asked the faculty members to, instead, work with us to present the topic in a time and manner that has the support of and input from our Board, our parents, the DEI Consulting Firm with which we’re working, and our DEI Task Force. Unfortunately, these faculty members denied the Board’s and my requests.

It also is my understanding that, during this meeting, students and parents gathered for a discussion during which rumors and misinformation may have been shared throughout the Senior School. This resulted in notification of the news media and approximately 25-30 members of the Academy’s community entering my office shortly after the meeting with faculty concluded. Though Academy staff attempted to manage the group in a calm manner and asked them to disperse, the group refused to cooperate, and their disorderly conduct escalated. As a precaution, police were called to maintain order and to ensure everyone’s safety.

I am working closely with appropriate parties to discuss applicable consequences that adequately reflect the severity of today’s events, which were completely avoidable.

We believe in fostering a healthy discourse on subject matter important to the school’s community. And, we take pride in being a safe, open, and inclusive space, especially for our students. Today, however, a group of individuals violated the spirit of our core values.

Today’s events leave us at an inflection point, and we have determined that it is in the best interest of our students, faculty, and community to take a moment to pause, reflect, and regroup. To that end, we canceled Senior School classes for tomorrow, Friday, March 4, 2022. Pre-K through Grade 8 students will have conferences/classes as usual.

The Trustees and I wish to remind our community that ongoing disruptions are counterproductive to our learning environment and our ability to address issues that are important to our entire community. Going forward, let us work collaboratively to remain focused on top-tier education for our children, the safety of our community, and our ongoing work to build a better Academy for the future.

Respectfully,

Dr. Ashley (Brown ‘00) Birtwell

Head of School