On Dec 28, 2018, current and former Deerfield students, parents, and faculty read a controversial front-page article in The Boston Globe entitled “‘Better Dead than Co-Ed’: Deerfield Academy Confronts its Male-Only Past.”
The investigative article, written by Kay Lazar, claimed that Deerfield “remains a place where female students have a sense this is not their Deerfield.” It described the school’s culture as being sexist both on an administrative and social level, citing reports of gender discrimination and sexual assault and saying there seemed to be “a cycle of white male power” on campus.
This article immediately sparked discourse within the student body. Many community members did not believe Lazar painted an accurate picture of the Deerfield they know.
“It didn’t represent Deerfield now. It might’ve represented Deerfield fifteen, thirty years ago,” said Will Holland ‘21.
“I would say that I’ve had a very great experience at [Deerfield] thus far. I’ve never felt disadvantaged as a girl at this school,” Kareena Bhakta ‘20 also shared.
Students were frustrated by Lazar’s references to aspects of Deerfield’s social culture, such as Captain Deerfield only being a male student or a longtime cultural norm that only certain senior boys could stand on the top bleachers at hockey games.
This year’s title of Captain Deerfield is shared by a boy and a girl, marking the first year that a female student has held the position. At hockey games, both boys and girls stand in the top row. Many students believed Lazar’s references seemed outdated.
Teddy Durfee ‘19, a four-year senior, said, “[Lazar] was bashing the school because of things that were happening a few years ago and portraying it in a way that made it sound like they were still issues now. But in reality, they have been dealt with and they have been changed.”
While most students acknowledged Deerfield’s gendered culture had been an issue in the past, some were agitated by Lazar’s failure to acknowledge change in recent years and the student body’s desire to progress in a positive direction.
“[The article] overlooked efforts the Academy has been taking to address some deep-rooted gender issues. There are things Deerfield is doing that are commendable—steps that the institution is taking in the right direction,” explained Kiana Rawji ‘18.
Cameron Heard ‘19 shared a similar sentiment, saying she “disagrees with the parts [of the article] regarding social influence and social culture, [as] a lot of positive things have happened.”
Several weeks after the article’s publication, students shared opinions in an open forum organized by Bailey Cheetham ’19, Emily Henderson ’19, and Mae Emerson ’19.
While several students said they continued to experience a toxic culture of gender discrimination on campus and felt the article held true to their experiences, most students described the article as biased and shortsighted.
“I’ve been here since freshman year, and I’ve seen this school progress a lot,” Durfee said. “I don’t think the culture my freshman year was the same as it is right now. I think a lot has changed in a good way in terms of inclusion.”
Others argued Lazar failed to take into account the diversity of the student body and the heterogeneity of the Deerfield experience.
“I think that what Lazar failed to account for was how intersectionality affects the experiences of women at Deerfield,” Fernanda Ponce ‘19 pointed out. My identity and experience as a woman of color from a middle-class family is very different from that of a white girl from an upper-class background.”
Cameron Heard ‘19 shared a similar sentiment, saying how she “disagrees with the parts [of the article] regarding social influence and social culture, [as] a lot of positive things have happened.” Even in the short four years that current seniors have been at Deerfield, they’ve experienced a significant change in the social culture that Lazar described as “toxic”.
As Durfee shared, “I’ve been here since freshman year, and I’ve seen this school progress a lot. I don’t think the culture and the DA my freshmen year is the same as it is right now. I think a lot has changed in a good way in terms of inclusion.”
Furthermore, Lazar seemed, for many students, to have failed to take into account the diversity of the student body and the diversity of the Deerfield experience. As Fernanda Ponce ‘19 pointed out, “I think that what Lazar failed to account for was how intersectionality affects the experiences of women at Deerfield.” Reflecting on her own time at Deerfield, Ponce further reflected, “My identity and experience as a woman of color from a middle-class family is very different from that of a white girl from an upper-class background.”
In fact, many people believe that Deerfield is not a perfect community, and the article did shine a light on issues that do exist at this school.
As Rawji’ 18 shared, “there are many problems with gender, some too subtle to cause widespread outrage but significant nonetheless, that the school ignores, whether intentionally or not.”
Even students who were bothered by some of the article’s inaccuracies acknowledged the continued presence of gender issues at Deerfield.
As Durfee ‘19 reflected, “I do see that Deerfield would be a different experience for a boy and a girl. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is… There is definitely work to be done.”
More specifically, some students were bothered by the article’s references to sexual misconduct and the way the administration handled such issues. The article revealed several instances where male students were inappropriate towards their female peers. Students were especially appalled by the article’s citing of a disciplinary decision in 2015 regarding a young woman’s reporting of sexual assault by a fellow male student. The male student in question got off with no punishment, as the decision was a “very difficult choice [between] a boy’s future and her feelings,” according to former teacher, Sonja O’Donnell, in her sexual discrimination lawsuit against Deerfield.
Yet, for some students, it was also short-sighted for Lazar to report on sexism and sexual misconduct at Deerfield as if it was exclusive to this academy. As Kareena Bhakta ‘20 put it, “I think it was a really microcosmic example, because I think the entire country is coming to the same question of what equality looks like and how we can achieve it… The article made it seem as though this was a very DA centric problem, especially with the title of the article, when in fact it’s very prominent elsewhere in the country.”
Students, teachers, and faculty have actively discussed and shared their own thoughts on these gender-related issues. Thus, many students look at this article as having a positive impact on the community, as it has sparked discourse on a topic many students never would have voluntarily discussed. As Bhakta ‘20 reflected, “I think that this dialogue that has been opened up is important because we can never believe that we’ve achieved the best quality of our school right now. There’s always room to grow, especially in regards to how we can treat each other better.”
Moving ahead, as Rawji ’18 put it, “we all need to acknowledge both the good and the ugly, instead of picking one side and ignoring the other, in order to move forward and make the school the best it can be.”