Princeton High School's principal emailed an apology to parents last week after the speaker at a student assembly on digital safety admonished some students for cheering examples of online racism and sexism.
The speaker, Alison Macrina, lectured the students on their "white privilege" after they cheered. The students then complained to the school.
Events unfolded after Macrina, an Internet-privacy activist, was invited to the high school on Monday, Nov. 14, to discuss the topic and her group, which aims to help public libraries defend against unwanted online surveillance. Macrina is founder and director of the Library Freedom Project.
One of the two assemblies, which were sponsored by the Princeton Public Library and the Princeton Public Schools, took a nasty turn after Macrina began discussing racist and sexist "trolls" on social media in relation to cyberbullying and white nationalism.
In a series of messages on social media days later, Macrina said a vocal minority of the audience cheered after she offered examples of racist and sexist online attacks.
"I called them out," Macrina tweeted. She described the group of students as "wealthy white teen boys cheering for racist imagery and yelling even louder when called out."
Macrina began chastising the students, and proceeded to lecture them on white privilege.
After many students and teachers complained that her remarks were offensive, Principal Gary Snyder emailed a formal apology to parents Tuesday morning for the "the inappropriate tone and unexpected direction of the assembly."
Snyder wrote in the email, which was obtained by Philly.com, that while Macrina "came to us highly recommended," she "strayed from the original message and objective."
"While our speaker sought to make important points regarding digital privacy and online safety, her strident style combined with provocative and inflammatory language caused students and adults to be understandably offended," Snyder wrote.
"While I, and some others, were able to see some value in the content she delivered, I acknowledge to you that I also took umbrage with several of her comments," Snyder continued. "As a result, and unfortunately, many of the important lessons of digital citizenship were largely lost."
He called the tension-filled assembly a "sign of the times."
"We live in a turbulent time with emotions running high," Snyder wrote. "While I can't make excuses for our speaker, my perception is that she found herself caught up in the post-election climate and allowed that to influence her presentation."
On Twitter, Macrina wrote that she was "astonished" by the issued apology, "but also not."
"This is our world," she added. "White students cheer swastikas and the offensive one is the one who calls that racist."
While Macrina never mentioned the school by name in her litany of messages, some students tracked down her account and replied to her messages.
The student messages included some claiming Macrina misinterpreted the students' responses as racist. One student claimed Macrina should have kept her political views to herself, while others attacked her personally using volatile language, demeaning insults, and slurs.
Following the social media exchanges, Macrina turned her Twitter feed private.
Why the principal or another administrator didn't stop the confrontation during the presentation is unclear.
Macrina did not immediately return a request for comment. And neither the superintendent nor the principal was immediately available for comment.
This is the second instance of reported racism from students attending the public high school. In April, students posted pictures of themselves on social media playing a "Jews vs. Nazis" drinking game, which they called "Holocaust Pong" or "Alcoholocaust." Photos showed one set of cups arranged in the form of a swastika, and another in the form of a Star of David.
The following is the principal's email to parents in full:
Dear PHS families, 11/15/16
Yesterday, PHS held an assembly that was intended to teach our students about online safety and digital citizenship skills that are needed in today's digital landscape. The speaker at the assembly came to us highly recommended, but strayed from the original message and objective. The speaker made statements that made some students feel uncomfortable, and a few students reacted in a way that also caused discomfort to their fellow students. We strive to be a school where all students feel truly safe, and where differing views and opinions can be discussed thoughtfully and respectfully. We will continue our work in that area.
This morning, I read the statement below to the students acknowledging the inappropriate tone and unexpected direction of the assembly and reaffirming the need for us to engage in open dialogue.
Gary R. Snyder
This is Principal Snyder and I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect with you on yesterday's assemblies. I'd like to begin by acknowledging that the program didn't go as expected, and for that I apologize. While our speaker sought to make important points regarding digital privacy and online safety, her strident style combined with provocative and inflammatory language caused students and adults to be understandably offended. While I, and some others, were able to see some value in the content she delivered, I acknowledge to you that I also took umbrage with several of her comments. As a result, and unfortunately, many of the important lessons of digital citizenship were largely lost.
Placing yesterday into context and using a phrase from your history courses, I'd call yesterday a "sign of the times." We live in a turbulent time with emotions running high. While I can't make excuses for our speaker, my perception is that she found herself caught up in the post-election climate and allowed that to influence her presentation.
So where do we go and what do we do? You know my answer... education is our foundation and our daily work. We will all learn from yesterday and continue our efforts in all of our classes to increase our knowledge and skills in all of the academic areas. The knowledge and skills needed in this digital age are all built upon the foundation of knowledge that you are studying. In addition, from a recent report published from MIT, it is emphasized that for 21st century digital literacy, there is greater need for schools to be teaching and students learning the required social skills of collaboration, cultural competencies, and networking.
I'd like to close by also giving thanks and praise to the students and teachers who continued yesterday with meaningful conversations and civil discourse on the various topics after the assemblies. It is always a point of pride for me to witness PHS engaged in constructive dialogue even in the most difficult of times. When we as a people can get past labels and name-calling, then we can engage in thoughtful and productive dialogue regarding the issues of our time. These discussions were happening yesterday in the hallways and classrooms of PHS. One of the intended lessons from yesterday was to also acknowledge that the conversations are happening online. We are part of a participatory culture that not only consumes news and information, but contributes to the production of that news. Your, and our, ability to do that in a productive and meaningful manner is critical for the times in which we live.