‘Better dead than coed’: Deerfield Academy confronts its male-only past
DEERFIELD — The slick, student-produced video could be a recruitment tool: a sun-washed campus, nestled in rich Western Massachusetts farmland, featuring students dancing, singing, and living a seemingly idyllic life.
“There is so much to learn here,” says a young man in a green Deerfield Academy cap, looking into the camera. “I’d send my son here for sure.”
Then he pauses, and looks down. “I’d have to think about sending my daughter here, but I’d definitely send my son.”
Another young man states matter-of-factly: “It’s a pretty toxic place for girls.”
Thirty years after boys chanted “better dead than coed” in protest of the school’s decision to admit girls, one of the nation’s oldest and most elite boarding schools remains a place where female students have a sense this is not their Deerfield.
It’s a place, students say, where boys get away with breaking rules that girls can’t. Where girls have been shunned from prime seating at hockey games. And where a letter of apology was punishment enough for groping a girl.
Many of these issues are laid bare in a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit, in which a popular former teacher said young women faced unequal treatment in disciplinary hearings and when they filed sexual harassment and misconduct complaints. The ex-teacher, Sonja O’Donnell, alleged she faced administrators’ wrath for years for standing up to the school’s unwritten rule that “boys will be boys.”
Separately, a 2015 graduate told the Globe she is still stunned that a male student who groped her several times in class was only made to apologize in a letter.
“Deerfield had many great professors and I learned a lot,” said the woman, now a senior at an Ivy League college. “But the culture is really backwards.”
Though the student body is split nearly equally along gender lines, inequity is spread across campus and woven into the way of life, according to 17 current and former students, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from Deerfield and classmates.
Until recently, girls were not welcome in the sought-after upper bleachers at hockey games, long a males-only seating area, and hadn’t been considered for the coveted position of Captain Deerfield, the school’s mascot.
Students and alumni are still chafing over a message earlier this year from Deerfield’s top administrator to “Deerfield girls,” with the subject line of “self worth.” It suggested female students more “carefully consider [their] clothing choices” after visitors to campus were shocked by some girls’ short skirts and high-heeled boots.
“I wish there was more of an acknowledgment that being a girl at Deerfield is tough,” said one 2017 graduate.
The 300-acre campus of red brick buildings and rolling fields, book-ended by a tiny village of 18th-century houses along Old Main Street, seems a quaint outpost. Or as some students describe it, a bubble separated from the outside world.
Leaders of the 220-year-old academy say they are trying to shed the vestiges of an all-boys school and deny the allegations in the lawsuit. Drawing on its $590 million endowment, Deerfield hired an inclusion officer and has ramped up antibias initiatives to tackle these issues.
In a statement to the Globe, Deerfield denied O’Donnell’s allegations and said its actions against her — including cutting her pay, barring her from serving as an advocate in student discipline hearings, and not renewing her contract — were “entirely legitimate.” It called discrimination and retaliation “antithetical to who we are and what we teach.”
In legal filings, Deerfield said O’Donnell engaged in “multiple incidents of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct,” including aggressively criticizing colleagues and violating school rules in student disciplinary hearings.
A federal court judge ordered portions of the lawsuit, filed last year in US District Court in Springfield, unsealed in the spring, and word of the legal action trickled out until it was featured last month on the front page of the student newspaper, The Deerfield Scroll.
“It’s a big step forward for Deerfield to have this in the open and set a precedent of being transparent,” said senior Joshua Fang, a co-editor-in-chief who wrote the story. “We can’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations if we want to make our school better.”
O’Donnell, an English teacher at Deerfield for 18 years until administrators opted not to renew her contract this year, said the school offers students incredible educational opportunities. She and her husband, Michael O’Donnell, a Deerfield teacher who resigned in August because he said the situation had become untenable, sent their son there and he graduated in May.
“I love Deerfield,” Sonja O’Donnell said. “I have never stopped believing in the potential for that community.”
On campus, pictures of Abraham Lincoln and other historic figures line the reception area of the administration building. Two statues, a confident “Deerfield Boy,” books casually slung under an arm, and a “Deerfield Girl,” clutching her books at her chest, still stand in the library.
In a 2009 survey, conducted by a consortium of private schools, nearly 90 percent of Deerfield’s 12th-grade girls said boys enjoyed more influence than girls at the school. Some students say things haven’t changed much in the nine years since.
One frustration repeatedly shared by current and former Deerfield students is disparity in discipline.
One 2016 graduate said she and three friends witnessed from her dorm window two drunken, rowdy male classmates, out after curfew, trashing a tent used for graduation luncheons. She said they saw two school administrators march the young men to the campus health center for drug and alcohol testing.
But two days later, the boys strode up to accept their diplomas, she said, despite a rule that forbids senior scofflaws from closing ceremonies if they break school rules within 16 days of graduation.
Shortly after that, an anonymous flier plastered around campus urged young women to stand up against a litany of inequities.
“Rich white boys drank, puked, and broke school property, with video evidence, but were allowed to walk two days ago at graduation,” the flier said.
It described a “cycle of white male power” at Deerfield, unequal punishments for male and female students, and the silencing of female students and teachers who object.
The 2016 flier concluded, “Would you send your daughter to Deerfield?”
That spurred Alexander Guo in his 2017 class video to ask classmates a similar question — one that prompted hesitant answers.
Guo, now a student at MIT, said school administrators tried to confront the concerns, organizing gatherings and classes to combat discrimination.
“I think the school tried to make it more inclusive,” Guo said, “but I guess many felt that didn’t change the fundamental culture of the school.”
Deerfield said it has taken robust steps to tackle these issues, including housing ninth-graders exclusively in a village of dorms to foster healthier male and female friendships from the get-go.
It also said it has added extensive gender sensitivity training and reviewed the selection process for student leadership and faculty positions, with an eye toward gender balance.
“These efforts — and our ability to learn from events like [the 2016 flier and 2017 video] — have allowed us to quicken the pace of positive change at the school,” Deerfield’s statement to the Globe said.
But quickening the pace isn’t enough, some students said. A 2017 alum recently wrote a searing letter to school administrators about a male classmate who posted sexually crude, aggressive statements about other female classmates on social media in 2016. She said the young man then sexually assaulted her at a prominent East Coast college in April. She blamed Deerfield’s “toxic” culture and previous hands-off treatment of the young man as directly contributing to her assault.
Deerfield said it could not comment on this or any specific incident. It said it typically follows a “two strike” disciplinary process, allowing students to “correct and atone for youthful mistakes, while still providing sufficient opportunity to redirect behavior of more intentional, more habitual, or more severe offenders.”
But in her lawsuit, O’Donnell alleges Deerfield has been dismissive of many sexually charged complaints. She lists several between 2011 and 2016 — the details redacted, under court order — in which boys accused of sexual assaults, stalking, bullying, or harassment were allowed to retain leadership positions on campus and escaped punishment, or were quietly issued letters of reprimand.
One young woman who reported a 2015 sexual assault to the school was told by an administrator that the outcome — no discipline for the boy — was based on “the very difficult choice” between “a boy’s future and her feelings,” according to O’Donnell’s suit.
“I believe a lot of the culture at Deerfield is connected to the way these cases are adjudicated,” O’Donnell told the Globe.
Deerfield’s reckoning has come later than others. As a wave of boys-only prep schools started opening their doors to girls in the 1970s, Deerfield’s trustees twice voted to stand firm. But in the fall of 1989, faced with a declining pool of applicants, Deerfield acquiesced.
Today, Deerfield enrolls about 650 students in grades 9 through 12. Its $590 million endowment is the fourth largest among more than 300 US and foreign schools tracked by Boarding School Review, a clearinghouse for boarding schools.
With tuition and fees about $60,000 a year, Deerfield draws from a largely affluent applicant pool. Fewer than one out of every five applicants is accepted, according to the school’s website.
Polished, but pleasant, students may be the images highlighted in Deerfield class videos going forward. After the 2017 video featured several boys and girls voicing hesitation about sending their daughters there, the producer for 2018 said she was told by administrators to keep things upbeat.
“They said remember to make this positive,” said Maya Rajan. “Your [class] wants to go out on a good note.”