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Phillips Exeter Academy confronts racial tensions

Jim Cole/Associated Press/File

By Globe Staff 

Administrators at Phillips Exeter Academy are vowing to address longstanding racial tensions at the prestigious New Hampshire boarding school following protests last week by students who fault the school for not responding swiftly to racial conflict on campus and for failing to retain teachers of color.

Frustrations have mounted since a 2012 report commissioned by the school found that a “statistically significant” number of students of color reported being the target of racist jokes or remarks at Exeter, experienced bullying, or felt threatened. It also concluded that much of the racism is “implicit” — baked in to everyday interactions.

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Students say much hasn’t changed in the five years since that report was issued. A group of African-American and Hispanic students continues to implore administrators to adopt measures that would increase awareness about diversity.

Several dozen members of the group staged a sit-in at the principal’s office Thursday, after a hastily called school assembly by administrators earlier in the day failed to address the students’ concerns, according to a person familiar with the action who is not authorized to speak for the school.

Last week’s protests at Exeter are the most recent instances of racial concerns at schools in New England; last month, Milton Academy students staged sit-ins to protest what students describe as racism.

Exeter enrolls roughly 1,100 high school students, with 41 percent students of color, according to the school. More than half of minority students are Asian or Asian-American.

Yet, the school’s faculty does not match the student demographics. Fewer than 17 percent of the teachers are people of color, according to the school.

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In a statement, Exeter administrators acknowledged, “We still have work to do, particularly in how we teach — and learn together as a community — about racial equality.”

The 2012 report concluded that much of the implicit racism at Exeter “arises from a lack of sophistication in understandings of race and white privilege among students and faculty.”

The school said it is committed to responding to problems highlighted in the report and that it launched a search in March for a new director of community, equity, and diversity.

“We are planning to take additional steps over the summer to address [student] concerns,” the statement said, “including curriculum changes, mandatory training in racial and equity literacy, and revising hiring and personnel protocols to ensure faculty members of color are hired and retained.”

A spokeswoman said the school has achieved significant progress since the 2012 report, and she highlighted about a dozen steps taken since then, including mandatory “unconscious bias training” since 2015 for all heads of departments. The spokeswoman also pointed to training conducted in January for all faculty on “how to have difficult conversations about race,” and a new student course titled “Identity, Empathy, Crosscultural Understanding.”

But the school acknowledged in a statement that “much hard work remains.”

“We thank the students and faculty who have held us accountable for our shortcomings, and we commit to making this an institutional priority moving forward,” it said.

Students said they are skeptical, and describe the steps taken so far as tepid at best.

A student group, the Afro-Latino Exonian Society, has repeatedly presented concerns and recommendations to administrators since 2015, and members say much of what they suggested has been glossed over or ignored.

The group has asked for more staffing in the school’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, twice yearly training on diversity for all faculty and staff, and a greater commitment to retaining black and Latino faculty.

The group recently produced a stark, 4-minute video, featuring the experiences of four students of color. One describes feeling invisible as the only student of color in his math class, his ideas ignored while similar thoughts presented by white students receive attention. Another describes a student’s shock and hurt after reading crude sexist and racist words written about her in a dorm online chat. A third describes her fear crossing campus alone at night after passengers in a car yelled racial epithets.

The protests at Exeter come at the end of a school year in which administrators disclosed that credible allegations of sexual misconduct had been made against four former staff members.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.