COLUMBIA—The start of classes on Aug. 20 was also the beginning of a season of healing and reflection at Cardinal Newman School.
As students returned to the campus on Alpine Road three weeks after controversy rocked their community, they were greeted by signs of unity.
Looking to welcome classmates back in a positive and faith-filled manner, a group of seniors came together to create a banner and post it on the school campus.
As teens and faculty arrived on the first day, they were greeted by a sign proclaiming:
“We learn, we love, we grow. We stand as one.”
Robert Loia, principal, said the sign was an appropriate symbol for the beginning of the new school year, adding that the first day of classes was emotional but also “healthy and positive.”
“The students take what happened very seriously, but they also love their school and they are happy to be back and to be together,” he said.
Cardinal Newman was caught up in controversy in early August, when parents learned of racist and threatening videos made by a 16-year-old student — who was subsequently expelled — and shared via text message in mid-July.
A parent saw the videos and reported them to school officials on July 13. On July 17, another parent found a video in which the same youth threatened to “shoot up” the school. The teen, who remains unidentified because he is a minor, was arrested by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department on July 17 and charged with making student threats.
Many parents and members of the community questioned why they were not told about the videos as soon as they were discovered, and an emotional town hall meeting was held at Cardinal Newman on Aug. 8. At that meeting, parents expressed concern for their children’s safety and discussed issues of racial insensitivity and bullying.
Loia apologized for not letting them know sooner and also announced that a second student had been expelled in relation to threats made against the school.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced on Aug. 19 that no further charges will be filed in relation to the racist and threatening videos, and said the case is now closed.
He said the decision not to file additional charges came from the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s office after reviewing the case. Lott also said that he considered Cardinal Newman to be safe.
“We do not feel there is any threat to Cardinal Newman whatsoever,” Lott said.
In the wake of the upheaval, a group of 10 seniors met the week before classes and created a motto to symbolize the true nature of the community. The words were emblazoned on a sign donated by a parent and placed at the front of the campus so it was one of the first things people saw as they arrived Aug. 20:
All students attended an assembly the first day of school, which started with a summary of the recent events. They then split off into small groups for discussion and were given the chance to speak to crisis counselors present on campus.
Loia said the second day of classes was also a good one as the entire student body attended Mass celebrated by Father Andrew Fryml, chaplain, who offered a spiritual perspective on the issues facing the school.
“When a community goes through a trial like we did, it could lead to total division, but by the grace of God that did not happen,” Father Fryml said. “The second thing that can happen in a trial is that we unify and get stronger, and I believe that is what is happening right before us.”
Father Fryml told the students to remember that they belong to a school community focused on God, and to mirror the values of Christ in their interaction with others. He told them to “build people up with your words” and urged them to avoid gossip, bullying and insensitive jokes because these things dehumanize the people involved.
The school is also taking other steps , such as moving forward with safety and diversity initiatives, including the formation of a task force that will focus on parental involvement, curriculum, and recruitment and hiring practices.
For the first few weeks of school, deputies from the sheriff’s department will be present on campus in the mornings and at dismissal. The school plans to hire private security and add gates at entrances.
Additionally, faculty and staff took part in two training sessions on Aug. 15. One was on how to deal with an active shooter. The second was conducted by Kathleen Merritt, director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries, who spoke about diversity.
Merritt said the group discussed a wide range of topics, including racism on social media and the importance of teaching students how to develop empathy. The session was the beginning of what Loia said will be an ongoing effort to incorporate diversity across the curriculum.
“I think this absolutely was a good first step for the school, and it should be something that is ongoing in all of our schools,” Merritt said.
Jacqualine Kasprowski, associate director for secondary education for the diocese and former principal at Cardinal Newman, said strong faith is the foundation of the school and believes that faith will provide a chance to produce some good out of the recent difficulties.
“This could have happened at any school in the state, but the fact that this happened at a Catholic school presents an opportunity for the students to really become change agents, to use their faith and step out there to take a leadership position in confronting the hard issues like racism,” Kasprowski said.