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Sewickley Academy students protest outside school, calling for safety, inclusion

SEWICKLEY, Pa. — Sewickley Academy sits on one side of the street, while their students stood on the other in protest of the administration, demanding transparency and inclusion.

“This movement is because we as students are afraid in our school,” said senior Madeleine Wren.

On Friday morning, Wren, along with dozens of students, gathered in opposition of school administrators. The students carried signs which read, “Stop censoring us” and “Protect our teachers.”

“We now must protest peacefully to show the school that we need action,” said Wren.

That action, after a meeting to deliver a petition on Thursday, ended with one teacher fired, and police called to campus.

“We now must protest peacefully to show the school that we need action,” said Wren.

That action, after a meeting to deliver a petition on Thursday, ended with one teacher fired and police called to campus.

“For me, that felt like, wow, this person doesn’t care about my safety and is using this as a way to intimidate and stifle my voice,” said Anthony Wiles, a senior and student of color.

While Madeleine Wren’s mother Lisa, who was present at the protest, described the meeting as hostile and aggressive on behalf of school administrators.

“An administrator came (into the waiting area) in a very aggressive fashion, said he was calling the police, and he was staring straight into the eyes of a Black student,” said Lisa Wren. “I was completely shocked; it was a large group, but it was all peaceful.”

PREVIOUS STORY: Parents, community groups upset over staffing changes at Sewickley Academy

Head of School Dr. Ashley Brown described the situation and group of about 30 students much differently in a letter to parents, stating,

“Staff attempted to manage the group in a calm manner and asked them to disperse, the group refused … As a precaution, police were called.”

The full statement is below.

Students are now calling Thursday’s conflict a tipping point after their petition for change garnered more than 110 signatures.

Demands included support advocates, placement of a social justice director, open board meetings, teachers “must be allowed to share any personal information at their will”, and a removal of student restrictions on free speech.

“We should be able to share our opinions no matter what they are without being scared that we will lose our education,” said senior Georgia Cox.

Cox also added that transparency is a priority.

“They have been firing our teachers and not really making any statements about it, and it’s really upsetting to see our support systems purged from the school with no explanation,” said Cox.

Administrators said they are working to identify consequences for students who disrupted classes on Thursday and said everyone should focus on top-tier education.

Classes will resume for seniors on Monday.

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

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