While a bus ride from Deerfield Academy to New York City takes approximately four hours, controversial social happenings take only an instant to spark discussions among Deerfield students. Yet for many students, discussions in and outside of classrooms are not enough, and the really important thing is to act on their social awareness and promote positive change in society. This would explain what motivated more than 6o students to express their interest in participating in the Greenfield protest and why the student leaders conceived the idea of going to New York City and Washington, D.C. That’s why these students were deeply disappointed when the school said, “Sorry.”
A month has passed since the school’s decision was announced. While many students have tried to understand the reason behind this decision, some are still disappointed.
“Truthfully, I understand why the school didn’t allow students to go to the protests. The school would have been liable if anything had happened to students, who are under their care, and many of those kinds of protests had the possibility to become a little dangerous. But it’s still very disappointing,” said Meghan Mozea ’15.
But why exactly did the school arrive at its decision?
When asked, both Head of School Margarita Curtis and Chief Financial Officer Keith Finan discussed the responsibilities of the school. Such responsibilities come in various forms, including both “supporting students’ interest in advocacy” and putting their welfare and safety as the school’s primary concern. These two types of responsibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, yet when one has to override the other, the school management opted for the latter.
“I understand the concern the school’s response elicited,” said Mr. Finan, “But it is not a question of the Academy advising students to hold or not to hold peaceful protests in NYC, D.C. or anywhere else. The issue is whether or not students under the supervision of Academy faculty and/ or staff will be reasonably safe while engaging in any activity off campus.”
When the prospect of a student-organized peaceful protest in NYC or D.C. came up, the school immediately started the process of risk assessment. “When the idea of sending students to NY and D.C. was brought to my attention,” Dr. Curtis explained, “I asked Mr. Finan, our CFO, to contact our travel safety advisory company, International SOS(ISOS), to solicit input from these experts in the field.”
In the list of travel advice from ISOS was, “Avoid all demonstrations due to the potential for clashes between the police and protesters.”
As Mr. Finan pointed out, most Deerfield students are legally minors, and the Academy has the obligation to safeguard its students’ welfare and safety. Hence, heeding the response of ISOS, the school made its decision with such obligation in mind.
Despite her emphasis on the school’s top priority of keeping its students safe, Dr. Curtis made it clear that it is part of the school’s mission to “fully endorse freedom of speech and the development of civic values.”
She added, “I think it is important for all students to be informed about what is going on in their communities, their country and the world, and to understand the historical underpinnings of current events.”
Dr. Curtis encourages students to express their views through journalistic activities, Deerfield Talks, on-campus forums, etc.: “In short, [these students are free and encouraged] to seek ways to engage in productive dialogue on campus and beyond around these challenging issues.”
On December 2, Director of Inclusion Marjorie Young and english teacher Eve Goldenberg led a forum on the Ferguson decision and aftermath.
On the school’s decision not to allow travel to the NYC/D.C. protests, Ms. Young noted, “This decision was made in the interest of student safety. . . That said, I do not have issues with peaceful protest, or those kinds of activities. I think it is a good way for people to demonstrate their concerns… I like the momentum and spark that the students’ efforts have provided and hope that we will continue to sustain a community dialogue about these issues. My greatest hopes are that students will continue to talk and listen to each other’s views and perspectives, that there would be mutual respect and understanding, as that is what leads to a healthy and comfortable community for all.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Young recognizes the importance of having a heightened social awareness. “It keeps us connected to important issues in our society and communities,” she said. “I don’t think it is possible to act on every issue, but there are issues that we have individual power to change, and in those instances. . . I do think that Deerfield students should actively lend their voices to social issues that they are passionate about. While it is easy to get involved when a topic is in the news, the challenge for all of us is to be consistent and vigilant about those issues daily.”
When asked if Deerfield students have the obligation to act upon their social awareness, Ms. Goldenberg affirmed, “I believe we have an obligation, as citizens in a democracy, as members of multiple communities, to pay attention, to listen, to notice. And from that, because we can, we have an obligation to act as we can—to raise awareness through our conversations, through our concrete practices, through our voices and freedoms as human beings, not just those granted to us through law.”