The Breaking Point, Before, and After: Anti-Semitism at St. Teresa’s Academy



Haidee Clauer

After girls from a Kansas City, Mo. private school St. Teresa’s Academy (STA) posted pictures of themselves playing an anti-Semitic drinking game earlier this fall, the school’s administration quickly began tackling inclusivity and prejudice to foster healing. Working partly in conjunction with the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), STA hopes to bring in a 24-hour Unitown program filled with intensive looks at prejudice and privilege, and deep bonding and reconciliation for both students and teachers.

Many efforts to bring in restorative justice programs at STA, including Unitown, were driven by alumni outraged by the hateful incident. In a KCUR interview, one STA alumna condemned the school for imposing “the same punishment one of my peers received for bringing an e-cigarette to class.” To hers and many others’ angered emails, the school responded that: “our hope is that, as our mission states, ‘profound love’ in action can lead to unity and reconciliation.”

STA administration connected to NCCJ through other alumna who had attended Anytown — a week-long camp version of Unitown.

One coordinator for both programs is Cecilia Belser-Patton. As Besler-Patton prepares to lead activities with students, she reveals that some of the issue extends beyond the teenagers themselves; “there are things that need to be worked out with the adults in their lives as well.”

STA junior Margaux Renee discussed the ignorance present at her school before the incident. “I do believe that there’s a certain culture of complacency,” she said. “I don’t think these girls would have done it if they thought it was a bad thing to do; they were clearly so much in their own bubble that they thought it was ok, or funny, or a joke… I don’t mean that to excuse them, I mean they hadn’t really been educated… they had chosen not to educate themselves.”

As the years pass, the number of living Holocaust survivors diminishes, distancing youth from the event. Photo by Haidee Clauer.

At STA and other private schools, the planning of education and programming addressing privilege and oppression is often handed off to parent diversity committees, student clubs, or a hired diversity coordinator. In the wake of the  incident, STA-sponsored retreats, alumna articles, and social media discord have given voice to people and perspectives perhaps not heard enough — at least not enough to prevent the incident.

Belser-Patton highlighted the salience of breaking this silence. “If we want to move forward,” she said, “we have to realize that silence is often consent — that if I choose to be silent, then I’m choosing the side of the oppressor.”

That conversation extends far beyond STA; Renee says that a problem of diversity and inclusion likely exists in “most majority white private schools… in this country right now.”

Indeed, an exposè published last year by the Washington Post documents racial divides throughout American private schools. The article, documenting Education Foundation data, confirms that 43% of private-school students nationwide attend “virtually segregated schools” — schools comprising over 90% white students.

STA is one of those schools. And so is HBHA. So how does HBHA fit into that conversation?

Part of HBHA’s interfaith and intercultural action is the yearly Social Justice project. Senior Julia Paul says that it “is a way of educating us of the complexities of interfaith relations and biases and how we speak. I think it’s one step towards being more educated but there are other steps we need to take.”

Unitown staff hopes that the STA incident will galvanize the change the community needs. At a recent meeting, NCCJ and Unitown trained program-leaders expressed both excitement at the prospective Unitown program and worry that, as time passes after the incident, STA administration might lose the urgency to bring in much-needed programming.

Still, many Unitown staff and community members expressed that STA — administration, parents, teachers and students alike — will retain the drive to both heal after the anti-Semitic act and prevent future incidents before they happen. “Change has to come from all the people in an institution,” she says. “It can’t just come from a select group; everyone has to work to make communities better.”