‘Deeply disappointing’ assembly leads to apology from OPRF principal
Oak Park-River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse sent an email to students and parents to apologize for remarks at assemblies — part of anti-violence week activities — that “addressed issues of race in a way that was offensive.” | Provided
Updated: March 12, 2013 10:27PM
OAK PARK — Oak Park and River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse e-mailed an apology on Tuesday to students and parents for comments made during all-school assemblies on Monday.
The assemblies were conducted by representatives of Alexian Brothers during two 66-minute assemblies for all students Monday. The assemblies were intended to kick off a school climate week themed “You Mad? Get Glad!”
Unfortunately, among other problems, “it addressed issues of race in a way that was offensive,” Rouse wrote in his letter.
“In discussing Rosa Parks, one of the speakers, a person of color herself, referred to ‘colored people.’ I believe she meant to echo the language of the 1960s in a sarcastic way, but that point was lost,” Rouse wrote in his message to students and parents.
“The presenter also stated that a long history of oppression and marginalization may lead people of color to respond to situations angrily and asked that students try to recognize and let this anger go,” he continued. “The take-away for many in the audience was that students of color are to blame for violence.”
A telephone call to Alexian Brothers seeking reaction to Rouse’s letter also was made but had not been returned by late Tuesday afternoon.
Karin Sullivan, a spokeswoman for OPRF, said Rouse acted in part because the response to the assembly was so overwhelming.
“This was one occasion where everyone in the building was pretty united in their view that this assembly did not go over well,” Sullivan said Tuesday evening.
Sullivan said she had been in the second of the two assemblies, and “you could feel it in the room, that students were not engaged. After the assembly, various faculty members told me they did not think it had gone well.”
Similar feedback was quickly heard from students and parents, both in person, via social media and in calls and e-mails.
“In particular what was mentioned to us was the racial component. We wanted to address that because it was clear to us that this did not go well and that things were said in an offensive way,” Sullivan said.
“We felt it was really important ot acknowledge that and be upfront.”
Rouse in his letter called the Alexian Brothers’ assembly program “deeply disappointing in its message and its format” as well as “unfocused, preachy, and geared for a younger audience.”
He also wrote that the school chose Alexian because the agency “was recommended to us by reliable peers as well as other local schools. We believed that the presentation would be the ideal way to launch our week.”
Cindy Milojevich, director of student activities, said Monday she had been instructed by Rouse to brainstorm, with the assistance of others, activities that would create anti-violence awareness among students.
“We’ve had some student misbehavior and disrespect this year. It was time to take action and start a conversation,” she had said Monday night. “It’s with the knowledge that an assembly or lunchtime program won’t end violence, but it certainly starts the conversation.”
By Milojevich’s admission, the haste with which the week’s events were developed may have led to a parent and community program on anti-violence Monday evening being attended by only a handful of people. Of those, only two remained for an informal discussion moved from the auditorium to the Student Activity Center with Alexian Brothers’ Stef Standefer and Mandy Burbank.
The Oak Leaves was present at that discussion, but the fallout from and reaction to the presentations earlier in the day were not yet known.
“We do many of these a year, and we have many where parents don’t come. To me it’s not so unusual,” Standefer had said at that discussion.
Standefer and Burbank, who were among Alexian Brothers’ presenters Monday during the student assemblies, said later that day that they were invited by OPRF officials to help develop a stronger student culture of respect.
“The school has a lot of skin in the game to really do something about it, to really shift the culture,” Burbank said Monday.
This was welcome news to Deborah Wess and Karen Brammer, the two parents who stayed for Monday’s informal discussion.
Wess, the mother of sophomore, said she was greatly concerned during her son’s freshman year at OPRF because of what she believed were nearly daily fights between students that took place in the school cafeteria. Wess said she witnessed one such fight herself.
“It took a long time — about 45 seconds — before any adults noticed,” she said.
Brammer, the mother of twins girls in the junior class, said she had noticed the disrespect a couple of years ago when some male students started an online list critiquing the physical attributes of individual female students.
“There was a very nice response to that,” she said. Some female students started wearing black T-shirts with the word “Respect” on them.
The remaining activities for the anti-violence week include related lunchtime activities through Friday; a collection of $1 from each OPRF student to benefit Sarah’s Inn, which fights domestic violence; and classroom visits by students trained by English teacher Avi Lessing to facilitate an anti-violence program; and the performance this weekend of an original production in the Little Theatre.
Sullivan said administrators are excited about the rest of the events planned for nonviolence week, even though “we’re really sorry it got off to a bad start.”