Divisions: More than Football at Stake…

This is not about football. So let’s get that out of the way right now. While Mount St. Joseph Academy’s recent forfeit to Mount Anthony was cause for a renewed debate about the team’s Division I status, the alleged behavior that precipitated the forfeiture is the more significant discussion.

Characterized publicly as a violation of “Christian principles,” it does not take much investigative work to piece together the details. Through comments on the Herald’s message boards, Facebook, and simply talking to people around town, the community has learned what purportedly happened.

It appears that there has been a pattern of hate speech — racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic — allegedly practiced by some students in the MSJ community. Some accounts suggest that this behavior reaches back several years. Such occurrences should be taken seriously and addressed directly and unequivocally. I applaud Principal Paolo Zancanaro and the rest of the administration, faculty, and staff for the disciplinary action they took. I am less impressed with those within the MSJ and the greater Rutland communities who seem to want to ignore this issue, choosing either to divert the discussion to a debate about football or to dismiss outright this transgression as nothing more than “boys will be boys” behavior.

This isn’t a free speech issue. The First Amendment guarantees our right to express ourselves freely, however a great responsibility is attached. While we are granted the right to say whatever we want, the true test of a citizen is acknowledging when those freedoms begin to harm our neighbors. There is a line. And hate speech crosses it.

These are not just words. Hate speech is indicative of a deeper systemic problem. It troubles me deeply that there seem to be those in the community who see no need to confront it. MSJ can lay a solid moral foundation, but that work is in vain if families undermine it at home either through practice or indifference. It’s exactly these kinds of attitudes that lead to hate speech. What starts innocently as a joke, soon turns to belief, and eventually into action. That action may manifest itself radically in violence, or often, more subtly in deeply engrained prejudices that breed intolerance within families, communities, and entire nations. History has borne this out time and again.

This behavior is neither unique to MSJ nor is it the prevailing ideology there. To be sure, many within the school community are saddened by these actions and support Mr. Zancanaro’s decision. I also do not wish to single out the football team. A student at another local high school agreed that trash talk on the field of play often involves racial epithets. Spend any time around some teenagers, and you will quickly notice how at ease they are with certain hate words. The N-word enjoys a special currency.

When pressed, they will defend its use, insisting that, to them, it carries no hateful connotations. While much has been made of the effort within contemporary African-American culture to reclaim the N-word in order to strip it of its power, there is a vast gulf between Dave Chapelle using it, and a bunch of white kids in Vermont saying, “He’s my n—,” let alone “Kill the n—s.”

What happened in front of St. Peter’s Church could have just as easily happened on the soccer field or in the cafeteria or in another school in another part of the country (and it does). Did these kids make a mistake? Yes. And they have been disciplined. It wasn’t so long ago that I was a high school student. I know you don’t always think before you speak or act. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially in a Christian institution like MSJ. I only hope they are sincerely apologetic and have truly learned something from this experience — a lesson they will hopefully carry with them into adulthood.

So here we are. Despite the so-called “post-racial” era ushered in by the election of our first African-American president, racism is still prevalent. We ask ourselves why kids are talking like this. The easy answer is the media, but that’s a simplistic and myopic argument. I’ve watched the same TV shows as these kids — “South Park,” “Family Guy,” Chappelle’s show — and I turned out fine (a lot of people did). But I know that hate speech is wrong. I understand these programs are all dealing in satire, and I view them within that context.

Still, I cringe every time I hear someone use the word “f-g” in a hateful way. Why? Because certain values were instilled in me from a very young age. Respect. Acceptance. Love. Justice. Dignity. I have my parents to thank for this moral core. But I also had an education that reinforced these values. For those of you who don’t already know, I am a proud graduate of MSJ.

Looking back on the arc of my intellectual and moral development, I can think of two individuals who had a significant influence on me. One was Father Charles Durham. The other was Paolo Zancanaro. The education I received from these two people has in no small way led me to where I am today. My passion for social justice, the environment, and community action are all a direct result of my experiences at MSJ.

So why then is there resistance to confronting instances that violate these Christian principles? Why has there been backlash against the administration for the disciplinary actions that were taken? More pointedly, how on earth can anyone even begin to justify hate speech? It’s because we refuse to admit there is a problem. In a community as culturally and racially homogenous as Rutland, notions of race are just that, notions — ideas that very rarely get put into practice. In the absence of a diverse population, we get lazy in our efforts to celebrate diversity and teach acceptance.

As principal, Mr. Zancanaro can do much to address intolerance. I have no doubt that he will use this incident as a teachable moment. However, despite his position, he is only one person, and as I have already stated, the school’s efforts will not succeed if these lessons are not being reinforced at home.

I urge the administration to remain proactive. Some sort of diversity programming should be implemented above and beyond the strong values that are already being taught. Intellectual development must be fostered, and more opportunities for new cultural experiences must be explored.

As for the rest of the MSJ community, we must re-evaluate what is really important for the future of our school. Over the years, it seems as though we have lost our way. (Now I am talking about football.) As a friend and fellow ’01 graduate noted, football should be an accessory to MSJ. Unfortunately, the most vocal and supportive alumni seem to think that football is the whole point, that Christian values are the accessory.

I respect the tradition of football at MSJ. However, it seems to me that there are those who would sooner see the entire school fail than move down a division. This is selfish and egotistical. Attitudes like this suggest that MSJ is more about superiority and winning than charity and humility. I am not a religious person; my faith lies somewhere between skeptic and atheist. However, the principles of love, acceptance, and justice transcend belief. This above all else should be MSJ’s proudest tradition.

Remember, words become beliefs, and beliefs become actions — a progression that can also be used for good. It begins in our schools and in our homes. If we do not teach love, humility, and acceptance, if these ideals are not being upheld by the community, then we have all failed. We will not only be mourning the loss of a school, we will be mourning the loss of an entire generation.

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