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Jacksonville private school halts part of its racial diversity curriculum, citing community ‘angst’

School said it will seek out ‘other diversity initiatives and resources’

This photos of a banner outside The Bolles School campus on San Jose Blvd was captured on Jan. 29, 2021.
This photos of a banner outside The Bolles School campus on San Jose Blvd was captured on Jan. 29, 2021. (Copyright 2020 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Bolles School, a private PreK-12 boarding school in Jacksonville, announced this week that it would not be moving forward with a diversity, equity, and inclusion curriculum it had planned to roll out, saying the program created too much “angst amongst our community.”

“We realize that certain elements of the Pollyanna curriculum created much angst amongst our community,” a letter from the school’s board of trustees posted to its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion webpage said. “To be clear, it was never the School’s intention to adopt the entire curriculum, but rather to only utilize those components that fit Bolles.”

The letter was first reported by The Florida Times-Union.

When News4Jax asked for clarification on what the school leadership meant by “angst,” Jan Olson, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at The Bolles School replied, “...some people really wanted it and some really didn’t so our board decided to seek other resources. At least we are all having the conversations that need to happen.”

In the spring 2020 semester, Bolles and other area private schools were at the center of social media criticism by students and graduates of color who posted their experiences with racism at the campuses.

Allegations of the use of racial slurs and faculty apathy about the open use of those terms were posted anonymously under Instagram accounts @BlackatBolles, @BlackatBishopKenny and @BlackatEpiscopal.

“From an outside perspective, I think the stories that highlight faculty racism has been the most shocking because most people assume it’s mainly students saying/doing racists things when in actuality this is a systemic problem,” the Black at Bolles moderator told News4Jax in an email last June. “We were motivated to create this account because Black students do not have a voice on campus unless it is in line with the white status quo. Too many instances of racism have occurred, with no meaningful disciplinary actions taken.”

The letter posted Tuesday did not specify what dissatisfaction was expressed by the community but said the school would be looking into other diversity initiatives and resources.

“We realize that the topic of diversity and inclusion is very personal and can generate strong emotions,” the letter said. “Finding common ground and solutions is not a quick fix and will take time.”

The Pollyanna curriculum is described on its website as “a comprehensive and innovative Parent/Guardian Companion Guide to share essential knowledge about race, and how to engage in productive conversations about race and racism.”

In response to the social media activity last year, some Bolles students created an online petition demanding resignations of staff and faculty.

Meanwhile, the school’s president called the accusations “certifiably false,” but the school said it took a long list of steps to address the concerns, including hiring a firm to investigate the claims made on social media, creating “Multicultural Leadership Teams” on each of the school’s four campuses and establishing a DEI Task Force.

The Episcopal School of Jacksonville, another private institution that was the subject of social media criticism by former students, said it has since launched a number of initiatives to address the issue. Specifically, the school’s Awareness, Inclusion, & Respect (AIR) Initiative.

“The tragedies of this past year reinforced our need as a nation – as a school – to respect the dignity of every human being.,” Rev. Adam Greene, Head of School, Episcopal School of Jacksonville said via a spokesperson’s emaiEpiscopal has made intentional and thoughtful progress on this critical topic, and we continue to move forward through the efforts of our Awareness, Inclusion, and Respect initiatives.”

Bishop Kenny High School also launched a Diversity Task Force in the wake of the online campaign.

“As a faith-based school in the Catholic tradition, we have always drawn upon gospel values and church documents specific to racism as the framework for our direction as a school community. In light of the events last summer, the school reinforced its commitment to inclusivity for students of all backgrounds. In an effort to review the school’s policies and practices as they relate to racism at our school, a Task Force on Diversity was formed and all stakeholders were invited to share their thoughts on the diversity initiative. In addition, a Diversity Student Union was also formed. Through the combined efforts of these two groups, and using stakeholder input, we have been looking critically and thoughtfully at diversity and racial inclusivity at our school. We want all members of our community to share the same experience of a Catholic education.”

Todd Orlando, Principal, Bishop Kenny High School

About the Author:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.