Ophelia B. Chang: A parent’s view of the health of the St. Paul’s community

For the Monitor
Sunday, March 11, 2018

Five years ago, after a thorough search of boarding schools for our daughter, we chose St. Paul’s School. The message we heard was perfect pitch: SPS offers everything a student seeks in academics, athletics, the arts and, most importantly, community.

We made this choice with some trepidation, as we were warned by some of a history of hazing and hierarchy. But we saw no evidence of this when we met faculty and parents, attended panels and asked questions. Ultimately, we decided our family would give SPS a chance. We live four miles from the campus, and our daughter is a good communicator. If at any time it seemed a mistake, I hoped that I’d see that early enough to intervene.

From the first presentation to parents about school life, it was clear that SPS is aware of the awesome responsibility of raising fine human beings. The deans were hopeful, earnest and honest. I asked questions, met students and faculty, and listened. I attended school assemblies and workshops that comprised the “Living in Community” curriculum. I made a quiet nuisance of myself, prying at all the openings I could, to see inside. Eventually, I was asked to join the school’s Building Healthy Relationships Committee, which has helped to develop some of the programs and protocols that have strengthened student culture and life in recent years. I continue to serve on this committee and can attest to this group’s strong commitment.

In one other way, I’ve been blessed to be witness to the SPS community. My daughter is a deliberate and careful observer and shares my anthropologic bent. She told me stories. Her experiences informed my conclusions, and the assurances I share are from both of us. She told me about instances of individuals growing among their peers, and times when adult intervention was necessary. I was always assured by the measures taken and justice of the consequences for missteps. Most of all, I sensed that she trusted the processes and social structure to keep her safe and ensure everyone’s personal growth. Over her four years at SPS, we saw marked improvement in the openness of student relationships and other clear indicators of inclusion.

From the very beginning, it was clear that the SPS administration is in alignment with the faculty in building a supportive community. Like any community, it is a living organism with imperfections and setbacks. Through my observations, I can attest to the profound and genuine commitment to a healthy environment.

I have followed Chessy Prout’s bravery as a survivor, from the trial through her emergence as an important voice for women struggling with sexual assault. I cannot imagine the pain she has experienced, and admire the courage she has shown. I respect greatly how her family has supported her, and my heart goes out to them.

Prout’s depiction of the school’s culture, however, is not my family’s experience. When the school’s culture today is maligned, the pain is palpable among the students and faculty. It is precisely because the students, staff, faculty and administration work so hard to strengthen the community that its constituents feel so deeply hurt by depictions otherwise. The suggestion that there is an enduring plot or conspiracy to cause harm not only appalls those who live in the community, but it also comes as a surprise to the majority of the students.

By being transparent about its current and past imperfections, SPS has landed in the news too many times. It is clear that the current administration has no intention to protect any individual who poses a danger to anyone. It has become a place that sets standards for institutions and models integrity to its individual community members. Rector Michael Hirschfeld and the SPS trustees showed the world that hiding behind secrecy is not the path to a healthy future.

By constantly evaluating and modifying the curriculum, SPS has taken its rightful place at the forefront of adolescent development. Its “Living in Community” curriculum is informed by experts in the field and shaped in collaboration with leaders from schools across the country and abroad. Part of the curriculum is to teach and practice “upstanding behavior,” that is, having the courage to stand up for what one believes and to verbalize objection to abusive behavior or intolerant attitudes. Prout embodies this lesson of speaking out to make one’s world a better place.

It is my responsibility as a parent to be vigilant and deliberate about to whom I entrust my children. I have had this school under a magnifying glass for five years now, and have shared what I found when I did so. I encourage all SPS parents to do their own examination, as I’m sure most if not all have done. The experience of being an SPS student has enduring value, and the alumni I’ve encountered hold great regard for the institution, regardless of the era in which they attended.

(Dr. Ophelia Chang lives in Hopkinton, is the parent of a St. Paul’s alum and serves on the school’s Building Healthy Relationships Committee.)