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Chinese exchange program’s founders criticize Newton North student

Rip student’s words plugging democracy

Henry DeGroot.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Henry DeGroot.

Founders of an exchange program between Newton Public Schools and China said the program they have worked more than 30 years to build has been jeopardized by an immature student who didn’t understand the ramifications of his self-serving actions.

Claire and Dick Kanter said Newton North senior Henry DeGroot should have been sent home from Newton Beijing Jingshan School Exchange the moment officials found the prodemocracy phrases he had written in the notebook of a Chinese middle school student.

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The Kanters’ comments follow critical remarks by Newton school officials in a Globe article that reported the incident Friday.

“Until this week, we have never had an incident with a student disobeying the written code of conduct that they all sign,” Claire Kanter said from her home in Florida. “And then he refused to apologize in person. He refused to take a 30-minute train ride to apologize. I can’t tell you what I feel about this, we are an educational exchange, not a political exchange.”

DeGroot was not sent home; instead Newton North administrators barred him from attending the senior prom after returning home from the semester-long exchange. He was also given a five-hour detention at his school in China after writing “Democracy is for cool kids,” “It’s right to rebel,” and “Don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you” in the student’s notebook during a visit to a school in a small town outside of Beijing in the spring.

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School Superintendent David Fleishman said Thursday the punishment had nothing to do with DeGroot’s right to speak his mind, but instead violated the code of conduct that he and the other seven Newton exchange students signed after extensive education about Chinese culture and social norms.

On Saturday, DeGroot said in an interview, “I did partially regret what I had done, as I’ve said, it was stupid and immature. But I don’t any more, because I’ve now had the opportunity to speak out about the school administration, so I’ve been given an opportunity I didn’t expect.”

DeGroot said he was under the impression that one of the two Newton teachers who had insisted he write the letter of apology would deliver it to the Beijing Jingshan School Principal Fan Luyan.

“School was already out of session for us, and I didn’t want to have to go back to deliver it myself,” he said.

In addition, he said, by the time he had written the phrases, with only about three weeks left in the exchange, he had already lost respect for the Chinese and Newton administrators who he said let the program’s academic rigor slip.

The Kanters, who have spent 35 years building a relationship between the Newton schools and China, have e-mailed a letter of apology to Fan.

“Throughout this exchange, we and those that followed us taught our students to recognize and respect the cultural differences between our countries,” their letter said. “The purpose of this exchange was and still is the understanding and respect as well as the mutual education of all our students so that solid appreciation of each other’s cultures would result.”

The actions of DeGroot, they wrote, came “at the expense of the Jingshan School and your position as principal.” They added that DeGroot violated “all the instructions given by Newton Public Schools as a condition of this exchange program we started.”

In 1979, Claire Kanter accompanied her husband on a business trip to Beijing, and said the exchange program grew from a chance encounter with her hosts, who found out she was a teacher in the Newton Public Schools. “The key words were always mutual respect and bridge building,” she said. “That’s what this one student didn’t understand.”

Ellen Iskanian can be reached at eishkanian@globe.com.
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