Athlone schools facing online accusations of racism

Principal responds as racist video made by girls from Our Lady’s Bower resurfaces

Noel Casey, principal Our Lady’s Bower Secondary School, Athlone. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

Noel Casey, principal Our Lady’s Bower Secondary School, Athlone. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

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“It was like there was a death in the family,” said Noel Casey, principal of Our Lady’s Bower secondary school, Athlone, speaking after a staff meeting held this week to discuss online accusations of racism in the all-girls school. “Everyone is absolutely devastated,” Casey, who has been a member of the school staff since 1983, told The Irish Times: “It’s been my life. I’m seriously shocked.”

The school closed its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts because of negative material that was being posted, including comment directed at three identified students from the school.

The wave of criticism began early last week and has been directed at both Our Lady’s Bower and Athlone Community College, a co-educational school just across the road from the all-girls school.

Both schools apologised after a nine-month-old video appeared online showing three white students using racist language. A fourth girl, who recorded the video, also attends one of the schools.

The eight-second video was recorded in September 2019, when the girls were beginning second year. In it a girl jumps from a stairs into a hallway and says: “When I say slave, you say n****r.”

Another girl then jumps into view and says “slave” after which a third girl lands in the hallway and says, “n****r”. Then the girls collapse into giggles and the video ends.

The video was shared among friends on Snapchat. According to Casey, when the girls were next in school, black students confronted them about it. “I believe it was discussed at the time, and there was a resolution, and they apologised.”

However, the video resurfaced in recent weeks when the Black Lives Matter protests started, seemingly in response to the girls expressing support on social media for the Black Lives Matters movement.

“Someone said, how can you, when you did this?” The girls’ Snapchat addresses were also published.

One of those who saw the video was Valerie Oyiki (22), who graduated from Our Lady’s Bower in 2014 and has since completed a degree in University College Dublin. Oyiki did not want to be interviewed for this article.

She posted the video on her Instagram account, and noted that in 2013 the school had used students in blackface for a production of the musical, Hairspray.

Oyiki did not make any complaint about her own treatment while at Our Lady’s Bower. However a series of responses to her posting were received from current and former students of the Athlone schools, alleging racist attitudes. These allegations can now be read online.

People were invited to send an email to the Athlone Community College principal, Eileen Donohoe, about the video. An email response in which she said she had visited the home of the school’s student concerned, was published online.

“I want to assure you that the girl and her parents are truly upset for the hurt caused. I can assure you that no malice or racist slur was intended. The comments uttered were without meaning or thought. Please accept my sincerity in dealing with this matter and I trust you will accept the apology from the student in question and her parents.”

Expelled

Oyiki set up a petition on Change.org with the headline, “Expel racists in Athlone Community College and Our Lady’s Bower Athlone”. As of Friday afternoon the petition calling for the students involved to be expelled had more than 5,200 signatures.

The board of management of Our Lady’s Bower issued a statement on Monday saying it had learned that three students “were involved in the creation of a highly offensive video, outside of school hours in 2019, in which students used racist terms”.

It was extremely shocked by this “and expresses its regret at the upset that this video has caused to the school community and to the wider community”.

The 2013 school musical “had very regrettably used blackface to enable the performance. This was wholly unacceptable”.

An independent review is being established to ensure the school is “a safe and inclusive environment for all”.

In a statement also issued on Monday, Athlone Community College expressed “sincere regret” for the genuine hurt and upset that had been caused.

Former Our Lady’s Bower student Minahil Sarfraz (18), who came to Ireland from Pakistan as a refugee, told The Irish Times she had nothing but praise for the school.

“When I first saw the coverage, I was taken aback. Our Lady’s Bower always felt like home to me. Mr Casey has always supported us, and always made me feel safe and encouraged my activism.”

Sarfraz and another former student, Natasha Maimba, who came to Ireland as a refugee from Zimbabwe, lived in direct provision while attending the school. They came to public prominence through the media while still students, and were appointed by Unicef as ambassadors for child refugees. They are both now attending third-level.

“In my own case,” Sarfraz said, “all I can say is that the Bower always felt safe. It didn’t matter what religion or family background or skin colour you were.”

Casey described the mood during Tuesday’s Zoom staff meeting as “sad, subdued, sombre”. The school policy was that “every student matters” and it was fully behind, and understood, the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

The staff response to what has happened was full agreement to “up our game”, he said.The plan is to have an appropriate body give the staff workshops on being more racially and culturally aware.

“We understand that we have girls that feel aggrieved. It is obvious these are their real feelings. Maybe this was the kick in the pants that we needed.”

The girls who made the video, he said, are “distraught”, hugely remorseful, and very aware of the trouble they have caused. “They have learned a huge lesson.”

“I can understand people being outraged and wanting to go public,” Casey said. “But when you are putting children in harm, then there is possibly a loss of perspective. I am saying that with the greatest of respect. We are dealing with children. And that doesn’t justify making offensive, racist comments.”

Dr Karl Kitching, of the school of education in Birmingham University, has studied racism in Irish schools. He said people of colour are not recognised as being “fully Irish” by the wider community.

Schools need to take responsibility for dealing with racism, he said, “but on the other hand they are not sufficiently supported”.