Adolescent misbehavior at St. Teresa’s Academy, a private, Catholic high school for girls in Kansas City, Mo., has created a mountain of trouble for administrators. First their students got them into hot water, then alumnae and parents turned up the heat. Those working at the school must feel pretty well-cooked now. The drama has yet to die down.
The trouble began when nine students at a weekend party played “Jews vs. Nazis” beer pong and posted a picture of themselves on Snapchat posed next to plastic cups arranged in the form of a swastika. The heading was “Girls Night!” When they refused to take down the picture, one student reported their conduct to school administrators.
As punishment, the girls at the party received a one-day, in-school suspension, were barred from extracurricular activities for a week and were required to notify the college of their choice of the incident. Some alumnae and parents were outraged that the school did not mete out harsher penalties, with most of the ire generated by the picture of the swastika—backwards as it happens, apparently out of ignorance—rather than by the drinking. There were rumblings that athletic ability and the affluent background of some of the girls involved may have led to undue leniency by school officials.
All of this is getting a lot of attention in the press, fed by alumnae and students turning to the media to vent. The Kansas City Starnewspaper reported receiving more than a dozen complaints from alumnae, parents and current students calling for the expulsion of the offending students.In a subsequent story, the Star ran a lengthy article about an African-American student at St. Teresa’s Academy who spoke about the racist slights she has experienced as a black student in a predominantly white school.
A public relations nightmare has unfolded for the school. The story of an elite Catholic girls school as a bastion of intolerance is nigh on irresistible, and the mediahasnot resisted. The story has gone viral, receiving national and even international press. In early October KCUR radio, which has covered the story extensively, aired a half-hour radio show on the beer pong episode, which was discussed as a disturbing example of hate speech.
Are teenagers playing a drinking game, in which teams line up beer cups in the shape of a swastika and a Star of David, hate-filled bigots? Before reaching for such a label, the most damning one can apply in this society, one might consider other adjectives that may more accurately describe the schoolgirls in the case. Take your pick from “thoughtless,” “culturally insensitive,” “historically obtuse,” “disrespectful,” “politically naive.” Teenagers are not, of course, known for sober reflection, careful behavior, historical perspective, respectfulness or political savvy. Besides under-age drinking, which none of the outrage seems focused on, what is the crime? Is it anti-Semitism, or is it stupidity?
It may be bigotry is the only sin our society recognizes as such. Stoning sinners is a popular practice in every age. Many in the wider St. Teresa’s Academy community have taken it up with zeal. The invective of some alumnae on the school’s Facebook page is scorching. Lost in the almost hysterical outcry over the incident is any sense of proportion. The Holocaust has been trivialized, and not only by teenagers playing flippantly with the symbols of a regime that killed millions. The teenagers failed to understand the gravity and power of the symbols they played with; the adults condemning them are confusing symbol for substance. They seem unable to distinguish between degrees of error, between mistakes of ignorance and crimes of intention.
Careless teens, a sensationalizing media and an overwrought public have dragged the name of St. Teresa’s Academy through the mud. Yes, school officials could have come up with more apt punishment for the drinking teens—I think they did go light on the them—but overall they have been more sinned against than sinning and steadfast in their insistence the school practice the Christian forgiveness it preaches. School authorities have been let down, not so much by the poor judgment of their students, which is to be expected from teens, as by furious alumnae and parents demanding they purge transgressors from the ranks.
This fall will be a busy time at St. Teresa’s Academy. There is a forum on hate speech and white nationalist groups for students to attend, a film about Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski, a visit from the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a book club being formed for parents and board members to read the book Some of My Best Friends Are Black and numerous other initiatives aimed at making students more sensitive to victims of persecution. All of that is well and good, but to encompass all that has gone on, a couple of classics could be added to the syllabus. The Crucible is one possibility; The Scarlet Letter is another.