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Newton exchange program stays despite student’s actions

Henry DeGroot.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Henry DeGroot.

The exchange program between Newton’s public schools and Beijing Jingshan School will continue, said Superintendent David Fleishman, who added that the actions of one 18-year-old have not fractured the 30-year relationship.

Officials had said they were concerned that Newton North exchange student Henry DeGroot’s refusal to apologize to a principal in Beijing for writing prodemocracy phrases in a Chinese student’s notebook could have hurt the program.

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But Fleishman said Beijing Jingshan’s principal, Fan Luyan, understands that “this is an isolated incident by one student.”

In a long-scheduled meeting Thursday morning on the Internet phone service Skype, Fan said through a translator that he had read a version of the Globe’s coverage of the incident and was aware of the ongoing debate, Fleishman said.

“He said he was fully aware of the different opinions in America on this issue,” Fleishman said. “The world is small.”

Fleishman said Fan reiterated the importance of the exchange program for his students and Newton’s and that this one episode does not change the longstanding success of the program.

When contacted with news that the exchange program was not in jeopardy because of his actions, DeGroot refused to comment.

“I’m not going to say anything about that,” he said.

DeGroot has started a blog called Endless Solstice and said that he is working on a crowd-funded scholarship that would encourage critical thinking in the Chinese-American community. He said his advice for next year’s Newton exchange students is “to mentally prepare themselves to have to deal with an authoritarian regime and not necessarily be supported by the Newton schools.”

DeGroot was banned from his prom by Newton North administrators after he returned from the semester-long exchange. The punishment was not because of what he wrote, but because he violated a detailed code of conduct that he had signed before going to China, Fleishman said.

But DeGroot maintains his civil rights were violated by the very school system that had taught him about the value of speaking his mind.

Ken Hamilton— chairman of the exchange committee, who was also on the Skype call with the Chinese — said that Fleishman did not apologize to Fan on behalf of DeGroot.

“There was no apology from David, but I did say that I was sorry that this whole thing happened,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the meeting had initially been scheduled to discuss a planned trip to Beijing Jingshan School by Fleishman next April and to discuss ways the Newton students and the Chinese students can better prepare for the four-month exchange.

One thing that the Chinese requested, according to Fan, would be for more underclassmen to make the trip, rather than only seniors.

“Principal Fan felt the younger students would be more invested than the seniors, who are usually already accepted into college when they go,” he said.

Hamilton said that Newton officials asked that the Chinese students who visit here be more committed to assimilating into high school culture and American family life. “We’ve found that many are more interested in going on US college visits,” Hamilton said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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