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Principal apologizes for ‘offensive’ comments on race by speaker at assembly

Oak Park-River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse sent an email students parents apologize for remarks assemblies — part anti-violence

Oak Park-River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse sent an email to students and parents to apologize for remarks at assemblies — part of anti-violence week activities — that “addressed issues of race in a way that was offensive.” | Provided

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Updated: March 13, 2013 2:17AM

Oak Park and River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse emailed an apology Tuesday to students and parents for comments made during all-school assemblies on Monday.

Rouse’s email said the assemblies “addressed issues of race in a way that was offensive.” The two assemblies were conducted by representatives of Alexian Brothers for all students Monday to kick off a school-climate week themed “You Mad? Get Glad!”

“In discussing Rosa Parks, one of the speakers, a person of color herself, referred to ‘colored people.’ I believe she meant to echo the language of the 1960s in a sarcastic way, but that point was lost,” Rouse wrote.

“The presenter also stated that a long history of oppression and marginalization may lead people of color to respond to situations angrily and asked that students try to recognize and let this anger go,” he continued. “The take-away for many in the audience was that students of color are to blame for violence.”

A telephone call to Alexian Brothers seeking reaction to Rouse’s letter had not been returned by late Tuesday afternoon.

Karin Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the high school, said Rouse acted in part because the response to the assembly, part of anti-violence week activities, was so overwhelming.

“This was one occasion where everyone in the building was pretty united in their view that this assembly did not go over well,” Sullivan said Tuesday evening.

Sullivan said she had been in the second of the two assemblies, and “you could feel it in the room, that students were not engaged. After the assembly, various faculty members told me they did not think it had gone well.”

Similar feedback was heard from students and parents — in person, via social media and in calls and emails.

“In particular what was mentioned to us was the racial component. We wanted to address that because it was clear to us that this did not go well and that things were said in an offensive way,” Sullivan said. “We felt it was really important to acknowledge that and be upfront.”

In his email, Rouse called the Alexian Brothers’ assembly program “deeply disappointing in its message and its format” as well as “unfocused, preachy, and geared for a younger audience.”

He also wrote that the school chose Alexian because the agency “was recommended to us by reliable peers as well as other local schools. We believed that the presentation would be the ideal way to launch our week.”

Cindy Milojevich, director of student activities, said Monday she had been instructed by Rouse to brainstorm, with the assistance of others, activities that would create anti-violence awareness among students.

“We’ve had some student misbehavior and disrespect this year. It was time to take action and start a conversation,” she had said Monday night. “It’s with the knowledge that an assembly or lunchtime program won’t end violence, but it certainly starts the conversation.”

By Milojevich’s admission, the haste with which the week’s events were developed may have led to low attendance Monday night at a parent and community anti-violence parent program. Only a handful of people attended, and of those, only two remained for an informal discussion with Stef Standefer and Mandy Burbank from Alexian Brothers that was moved from the auditorium to the Student Activity Center .

Standefer and Burbank, who were among Alexian Brothers’ presenters Monday during the student assemblies, said later that day that they were invited by high school officials to help develop a stronger student culture of respect.

“The school has a lot of skin in the game to really do something about it, to really shift the culture,” Burbank said Monday.

This was welcome news to Deborah Wess and Karen Brammer, the two parents who stayed for Monday’s informal discussion.

Wess, the mother of sophomore, said she was greatly concerned during her son’s freshman year at the school because of what she believed were nearly daily fights between students in the cafeteria. Wess said she witnessed one fight.

“It took a long time — about 45 seconds — before any adults noticed,” she said.

Brammer, the mother of twins girls in the junior class, said she had noticed the disrespect a couple of years ago when some male students started an online list critiquing the physical attributes of individual female students.

“There was a very nice response to that,” she said. Some female students started wearing black T-shirtsthat read “Respect.”

The remaining activities for the anti-violence week include related lunchtime activities through Friday; a collection of $1 from each student to benefit Sarah’s Inn, which fights domestic violence; visits by students trained by English teacher Avi Lessing to facilitate an anti-violence program, and the performance this weekend of an original production in the Little Theatre.

Sullivan said administrators are excited about the rest of the events planned for nonviolence week, though “We’re really sorry it got off to a bad start.”

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