Marist College’s Black Lives Matter conflict ‘an abuse of teacher power’ – Collins

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Marist College students are accusing their school of racism after they say staff took down Black Lives Matter posters they had put up.

At least one student took her allegations to the board. It met last night, and in a statement said there would be a formal investigation into the concerns raised, and the Catholic diocese would also mediate between the school and students.

The principal has not specifically responded to Checkpoint‘s requests for an interview. The Auckland Catholic Diocese has also been approached for comment.

Its Vicar of Education, Catherine Ryan, said they wished to support the students and staff in resolving the current issues.

She said until they have had the opportunity to listen to the concerns raised it was not appropriate for her to comment.

Today Checkpoint‘s Lisa Owen talked to Agnes Loheni, a former student at the college and now a National Party list MP, who expressed her support for the school.

She said no-one had asked her to do so and she had not spoken recently to the principal or the board.

Loheni told the programme that schools should not be a political playground.

“I absolutely support Black Lives Matter. George Floyd’s life mattered. But … I fear that the movement of Black Lives Matter has been hijacked in America from those who want to play politics. We’ve heard over there of demands to get rid of police, to get rid of prisons, to get rid of court systems – to me, that’s politics.”

However, she said that was not to say that students should not discuss the issue.

“It’s a big issue, and they should be discussed – definitely in the classroom.”

On the other hand, Loheni said schools should be entitled to make their own decisions.

“I think it comes down to … schools should be allowed to adhere to their rules and their values.

“I may be supportive of my girls doing anything but I would not be supportive of them breaking school rules.”

It was her understanding that the posters had been up for a week, but Loheni would not divulge who had given her that information.

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She said she was speaking out in support of the school now because her experiences there 30 years ago had been positive.

“This is a school that I went to, it’s a school where me as a brown-skinned person was encouraged to look across at international events and to debate these issues, but absolutely I felt no racism at all towards me at the school.

“It’s a school that supported me to travel to Germany. It’s a school supported me to get the senior chemistry prize, it’s a school that supported … my pathway to becoming a chemical engineer.”

However, Pasifika community leader and Auckland Councillor Efeso Collins told Checkpoint taking down the posters was “a pretty aggressive act” and an abuse of power.

Collins said he held a lot of respect for Loheni – whom he attended university with – but he disagreed with her remark about involving politics.

“We all know in any workplace there is politics, we know on the sports field there is politics, so I think that is a very narrow definition of what politics is. This is about how we robustly approach different ideas.”

Today he tweeted in support of the students saying teachers are not the sole source of knowledge and power.

“I see it as an abuse of teacher power because the teachers know students have very few or they have a low confidence level when it comes to recourse,” Collins said.

“If a teacher was to go and rip down a sign and say something to you, directly or indirectly, that means that your views don’t matter, that you’re actually inferior, and a student is going to be very nervous about having some recourse and coming back to you on that.”

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He said those in charge should have reached out to the students with dialogue and tried to understand their concerns before taking action.

“I used to teach education at the University of Auckland and Laidlaw College and any Freirean thinker, who wrote books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, will know that students are often seen as passive receptors of information.

“So abuse of power is when ‘Efeso the teacher’ comes along and says ‘well you just received the information, you receive the way I treat you and you’ve got no way to come back on it’. That’s not how we conduct ourselves any more, we’ve got to create safe learning environments where people feel they can have a kōrero, a conversation, and that’s not what’s been going on here.”

He said students had the right to put up the posters, but the problem centred around teachers not having conversations with the students about it.

“All that’s happened here is a student has stepped out and said ‘we want to raise these issues’ and a teacher has ripped down their posters. I wonder if in many schools we’re suffering from a phobia around adolescence.

“We’ve got young people who want to march against climate change, we’ve got young people who want to talk about racism and yet we’ve got teachers who are abusing their power by ripping down their posters…”

Others schools have also become entangled in controversy after Black Lives Matter posters were removed there too.

Collins said one of the reasons this may be was that some teachers did not want to tackle tough subjects.

“A lot of our teachers think, ‘oh that’s too hard, we don’t want to confront those issues’, but anyone who does social studies knows those are important issues we need to discuss. If we approach education from a socially just perspective then we’re all able to have honest mature conversations.

“In fact you could build some really good curricular out of those activities and what’s going on at the moment. We’ve often seen schools as the teacher is in charge but what we want is a much fairer approach to education. The teacher doesn’t know everything, they are not the sole source of all knowledge.”

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And for those that argued it should an ‘all lives matter’ approach, Collins said classrooms were a good place to have those conversations and debates.

He said he was glad to see that Marist College was now reaching out to students and whānau but it shouldn’t have happened in the way it did.

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