SJA Families,

I need your help.

Our school, this school that I love so much, this community that has been a source of grace and blessing to my life for 14 years, this place that has become a second home to me and my family, is hurting right now.

It’s hurting for a lot of reasons. High school is hard enough a lot of the time. Covid has been difficult to navigate. We lost our sister Izzy merely a month ago.

And then on Friday came the social media post that brought pain, embarrassment, and negative attention to our school.

The homecoming sign with which we are all likely now familiar hurt all of us who love SJA. It hurt the students and staff who believe in who we are and who we strive to be. In particular, it hurt our community members of color who were faced with a public reference to our country’s history of slavery and a reminder of the extreme degradation Black Americans in particular have faced.

From the first time I saw the post, hurt was there for me too. But a second wave of pain welled up underneath it.

When I speak to the students, I often reference my three expectations of “be honest, be excellent, and take care of each other,” and I’m going to try to do that here. If I’m being honest, that second wave of pain came because I know that this sign was not just a public example of a racist past, but also an extreme example of a more subtle hurt that still occurs in the present, even within our building. While this is the first time SJA has been in the public spotlight regarding racism, I have had other, quieter instances in my time as principal, sitting in my office, listening to the pain of a student of color who heard or saw something that was demeaning, degrading, or outright racist, fumbling over my words in response, wishing I could take their pain away.

It hurts me to write that because I want people to think well of our school, and quite frankly, I think they should. I believe we have one of the most authentic and loving school communities you can find anywhere. I truly believe our kids are great and buy into our mission. That is no different today than it was a week ago.

But the truth is, our students are still kids, and we are not perfect. That means they will need to grow and learn, and it means we can always get better.

In a predominantly white, suburban school, students often are in situations with others whose life experiences are all very similar to theirs. While this is not necessarily wrong, it can create a learning gap for our kids in which they might remain unaware of perspectives and realities that are important for them to hear and learn from.

I’m not saying this just because of what happened this week. This is a conversation we’ve been having as a staff in different ways over the past four years, from a 2019 audio history of segregation in Kansas City to discussing Archbishop Naumann’s 2020 article on the racial events of that summer to a committee of teachers working last year to find opportunities to close the aforementioned learning gap. It has also been part of discussions over the last year related to our strategic plan to be published later this fall.

This has led to some small but important steps with what we do for our students. Last year we shared a video with all of our students in which some Black SJA alumni speak about their experience at our school and how, while they loved their time at St. James, many did have experiences of people making hurtful comments related to their race. This year freshmen watched a video in Freshmen Seminar that addressed in part how we don’t joke about someone’s race or ethnicity because the human person and family are sacred, and piety demands we treat the sacred with respect. We also of course examine the question of race in our history and literature classes.

Still, we know we need to keep working on this. We need to find more ways to both improve the learning that happens for our students and also to help our community be as supportive and welcoming as possible for students and families of all backgrounds.

But as I said, I need your help. First, if our students feel that we are just reacting to what happened in order to save face, they won’t buy what we’re saying. That is part of why I wanted to share with you that these are conversations we’ve been having as a staff intentionally and consistently over the last several years (even if the footprint in what we teach the students has only started to be felt in the past two or so).

More importantly, however, our kids need to hear from their parents because you are their first educators. Your home is the domestic Church. I believe each of us can share that we see the necessity of being thoughtful with our words and actions, not out of political correctness, but out of respect for the sheer splendor of the human person those words describe.

I worry that in our current political climate, our children might overhear us talking more often about what we DON’T want taught to them than what we DO want taught to them: that the human person has dignity immeasurable in worth and indelible in character; that the horrors perpetrated against Black people in this country in the past, from the slavery of 150 years ago to legalized segregation, blockbusting, and redlining in our very metro within living memory, should be haunting reminders of what we are each capable of (though not necessarily guilty of) and of the dangerous road we step onto when we so much as speak of another person in a way that makes them seem “less than” or “other” from ourselves.

This is an opportunity to sit down with our children and make sure they understand these truths. It has been so for the family involved in the social media post already, and there will be continued learning and healing for them that we will walk with them through moving forward. However, this can be a chance for us all to take a step together. I am asking you to have this conversation at home over the next few weeks while we continue to work on improving what we do at school.

Linked here you will find the USCCB’s letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” published in November of 2018. It is a wonderful pastoral letter that explores racism in America through the eyes of our Catholic faith. I am asking you to read it with your children sometime between now and the end of October. It is 32 pages in length and will likely take an hour to read and discuss. Please find that hour sometime in the next month. Then on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd, our Theology teachers will ask their students to discuss the experience of reading this letter with their family and what some of their takeaways might be.

As is often the case with our Church, I imagine that reading this will be enlightening and affirming but also challenging and frustrating, confusing at times and clarifying at others. But whatever it ends up being in your home, it will at least be an opportunity to talk to your children about this important issue away from the noise of our culture, warm in your homes and safe with your families, guided and challenged by our Church who is Mother and Teacher.

Make no mistake: our school is incredible. One bad moment does not define us. For each time that a St. James kid messes up or treats someone poorly, I could share ten examples of a student acting selflessly, even heroically, in their effort to follow Christ.

But if we want to be excellent, if we want to be the absolute best we can be and get better in how we take care of each other, we must be honest about where we can grow and have the courage to walk that path. I look forward to walking together with you.

Your brother in Christ,

Shane Rapp, Ed.D.