Former Marian Central students petition to end 'culture of racism, sexism, queerphobia'

Racist video unleashes wave of testimonials of discriminatory behavior shown by staff and students

In response to a racially violent video posted by a student, a group of 11 Marian Central Catholic High School students and alumni created a petition calling for the school’s administration to overhaul what they described as a culture of discrimination and exclusion perpetuated by students and staff.

On June 6, former Marian Central student Sydney Leidig posted the petition, which now has about 1,800 signatures.

“As an administration and as a school, it is their job to create an environment that is healthy and safe for all students, and this video is evidence that they aren’t doing that right now,” Leidig said. “They need to work harder and start to implement concrete changes and that’s why we made the petition so specific.”

The petition contains a list of action items demanding that Marian Central’s administration change aspects of its curriculum, educational materials, disciplinary procedures and communication methods. It also demands that the school hire a crisis counselor and provide more mental health resources to students who may be struggling.

When asked about his reaction to the petition, the school’s superintendent, Mike Shukis, wrote that “standing up against racism is not only noble, but also the right thing to do.”

But he said that “effective communication begins the process toward solutions, and that should not begin on social media.”

Disciplinary action was taken in response to the video, but Shukis said that he could not provide further comment on disciplinary matters regarding a current student per Marian Central’s school policy.

“I am appalled and disgusted that such a video could be created by anyone,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “I began an investigation immediately after becoming aware of its posting, which included notifying and consulting with the Diocese of Rockford and applying our disciplinary and anti-cyberbullying policies.”

The controversy began when a Marian Central student posted a video on Instagram, which showed animated characters designed to look like Ku Klux Klan members lynching an animated character designed to look like a Black person.

A screen recording of the video was posted to Facebook by Marian Central alumna Amie Ledermann in an effort to pressure the school to address the student’s behavior, Ledermann said.

The next day, June 4, Marian Central responded with two statements posted on their Facebook page – one from Shukis and one written as a joint statement by the school’s administration.

In his statement, Shukis pledged that the school would hold diversity trainings for all staff, followed by a similar training for the student body.

“I do not claim to ever have a policy or a program that will end racism or discrimination, but Marian will work toward this ideal and continue to strive,” Shukis wrote in an emailed statement a few weeks later.

The school’s initial statements were also posted on Marian Central’s official Instagram page, where an argument quickly broke out in the comments section. The student who posted the racist video as well as another student made threatening, sexist remarks to female students who condemned the video. They called the females “dishwashers” and threatened to “slap the [expletive] out of them.”

Leidig said she was frightened by the fact that these students felt comfortable berating their female classmates directly on the school’s Instagram page.

“If you have students who feel so emboldened to make comments joking about their violent behavior on the school’s official page, that shows that ... they don’t think they’re going to get repercussions for their actions or it shows that they don’t think they did anything wrong,” she said.

The school ultimately deleted the comments after a period of about five days, Leidig said.

On Facebook, many community members voiced criticism of the fact that the school’s initial statements failed to address the video specifically, prompting Shukis to release a second statement on June 11.

“Marian Central does not tolerate any type of racism or other forms of discriminations by our students, including when that conduct occurs through social media,” Shukis wrote in the second statement. “This would include any type of highly offensive or inappropriate videos. ... We are committed to dealing justly in a situation that involves unacceptable conduct by any student.”

When the group that created the petition did not hear back from the school’s administration regarding their demands, they began collecting testimonials from individuals who said they experienced the kind of cultural toxicity outlined in the petition, Leidig said.

On Monday, another former Marian Central student, Karla Juarez, posted 15 pages of testimonials from current and former students.

“Thank you for your bravery in sharing these testimonials,” Juarez wrote in the Facebook post. “We hope that these many written instances will shine a light on all the areas [Marian Central] must work on so that the school may be a safe place for all populations.”

There were 32 testimonials submitted, which detailed instances of racism, sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community and verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Some of these allegations were of misconduct by students and others were of misconduct by teachers and staff.

“In my three years at Marian, I have been outed for being gay [and] got called a [expletive] regularly in the hallways in front of teachers without them feeling the need to say anything,” one student in Marian Central’s class of 2021 wrote.

The student wrote that they feel pressured to hide their sexual identity from other students and staff for fear of their safety.

“While being trans is already a controversial thing in society outside of Marian, at the school it is at least double that,” the student wrote. “They are not willing to acknowledge that we are just people like everyone else. Instead, they say that we are just confused and teachers have referred to us as ‘its.’ My time at Marian is a time that I almost always dread and can’t wait to graduate and leave the school.”

Shukis stated that he does not agree with the petition’s assertion that there is a “culture of racism, sexism, queerphobia, and general bigotry” at Marian Central Catholic High School.

“... I know of no student who feels unsafe while at Marian Central,” Shukis wrote in an emailed statement. “If a current student does not feel safe at our school, that student and his or her parent can contact me directly and I will personally look into that concern.”

“The perception that the school administration ignored reports brought to our attention is incorrect from my experience,” he wrote.

Leidig has personally emailed Shukis three times over the last month and has not heard back, she said. A few of the other former students who helped put together the petition have reached out as well, with no response.

Shukis began working with Marian Central at the start of the 2019-20 school year as assistant superintendent and recently took over as superintendent to replace interim superintendent Vito DeFrisco.

“We have taught our students for decades that we must love one another as Christ teaches,” Shukis wrote. “We must double our efforts in teaching them what that means in terms of the dignity of every person, each made in the image and likeness of God our Creator.”

Leidig said the gaps in Marian Central’s curriculum on matters of equity, dignity and inclusion extend beyond issues regarding race.

When she was a student just a few years ago, the school’s sexual education omitted any teachings on the importance of consent, focusing strictly on abstinence, Leidig said.

As an upperclassman, Leidig attended a mandatory, school-sponsored church retreat during which female students were asked to sit in a circle, taking turns pulling the petals off of a flower passed between them.

The stem, laid bare by their plucking, was waived in front of them as a symbol of how their value would be lessened with each partner they may choose to be intimate with.

“They said ‘Nobody wants this, no man will want this,’” Leidig said.

“I understand that they’re a Catholic school and they have to teach chastity, I get that,” she said. “But you can teach chastity without objectifying women and comparing their entire value to their sexual behavior.”

Another former student who graduated with the class of 2019, Jack Popovich, said that Marian Central’s theology curriculum is similarly narrow-minded and problematic.

“The theology curriculum is not particularly organized,” Popovich said. “The teacher can talk about whatever they want under the guise of moral and sexual ethics. But, because of the prejudices of the teacher, we would spend probably 75% of the year talking about that single topic of sexual ethics in Catholicism, which wasn’t actually speaking about that topic it was just an excuse to slander gay people.”

Popovich’s theology teachers often used videos from the right-wing conservative organization Prager University, which is not an academic institution, in place of forming their own lesson plans, he said.

Popovich said he brought his concerns to the administration and, as a result, one of the school’s theology teachers, Michael Pipitone, was fired. Popovich said there is still at least one theology teacher employed at the school who is known to use Prager University videos – which can be highly offensive to marginalized populations – in class.

“Last year we began an intensified process of fully evaluating the theology department and how the curriculum is taught to ensure that it is aligned with Catholic teaching,” Shukis wrote in response to these allegations. “We will continue this process moving forward.”

In order to move forward, the group of current and former students that created the petition say they want to have a dialogue with the administration about what kinds of comprehensive changes will be made.

Until that happens, they will keep pushing until their voices are heard and the school takes responsibility for the changes that need to be made, Juarez said.

“I would have to disagree with the notion that this is not the responsibility of the school because I’m a future educator and I truly believe that it is the educators’ responsibility to perform social action through education,” Juarez said.

Juarez is studying special education at Loyola University and said that, when she becomes an educator, she will ensure that all students feel safe and valued regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality or disability status. She said she hopes that Marian Central will commit to doing the same.

“I don’t want this to just be forgotten, like, this culture of hatred exists at Marian and no one really does anything about it,” another former student who asked to be referred to as Sarah said. “They tolerate intolerance at the end of the day because they just don’t respond to it at all.”

“Because the school’s demographics are so heavily white-centric, it’s easy to just forget that other students go to the school and don’t share the same background and that their experiences can be very negative,” Sarah said. “The school just needs to remember that they need to take care of their students and that’s something that they’re not doing.”

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