Dyker Heights

Poly Prep students demand changes to combat racism

January 23, 2019 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A video depicting two female Poly Prep Country Day School students making animal noises and jumping around in blackface went viral over the weekend, putting a spotlight on race relations inside the elite private school in Dyker Heights.

The New York Daily News, which broke the story of the video, reported that the two students depicted in the video have left Poly Prep as a result of the controversy.

But it’s not clear if their departure will cool racial tensions at the school at 9216 Seventh Ave.

Leaders of Emoja, a black affinity student organization at Poly Prep, charged that the video was just the latest example of a long history of racial insensitivity at the school and wrote an impassioned letter to Head of School Audrius Barzdukas demanding that he address not just the video, but also the struggles faced by students of color.

Emoja leaders Jeovanna deShong-Connor and Talisha Ward, both Poly Prep seniors, organized a student sit-in at the school on Jan. 18, the last day of classes before the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

“This is not an isolated incident,” the students wrote in their letter, which was published by Polygon, the school newspaper.

The Emoja leaders wrote that “not one year has gone by without an event rooted in racial intolerance and prejudice” and that students of color “feel uncomfortable in our own halls, in our own classes, and on our own campus with our so-called peers.”

Poly Prep officials pledged to work with students to bring positive changes to the school.

“We embrace our students’ desire for positive change and support their thoughtfulness in delivering their messages, constructive dissent, strong actions, and civil disobedience in pursuit of a higher good. Our entire school administration and faculty are committed to working with them and will continue our school’s dialogue to bring positive change to our community,” a statement posted on the school’s Facebook page read.

The Emoja leaders demanded that Poly Prep take several steps to improve the school’s racial climate, including: instituting a course to teach students about empathy, amending the Poly Code of Conduct to include prohibiting racist acts and hiring more African-American teachers.

The explosive video, shot two years ago, depicts two 12-year-old girls in blackface prancing around a bedroom making animal gestures and noises. The girls were students in Poly Prep’s Middle School at the time. The video only recently surfaced when a student not in the video posted it on a student website on Jan. 11. The Daily News learned of the existence of the video and published an article about it on Nov. 19.

The girls in the video have not been publicly identified. Students charged that the girls in blackface were never disciplined for their actions. But Poly Prep officials defended the school’s response to the crisis.

“We do not tolerate racism or prejudice in our school or in our communities. We took immediate action as soon as we learned of a highly offensive video, taken years ago, being circulated on our campus,” officials said in a statement.

In the days after the controversy erupted, there were signs that the storm was having ramifications beyond the gates of the fenced-in private school.

Members of the group Fight Back Bay Ridge contacted the Brooklyn Eagle to voice their support for the student protesters.

“We hope that in addition to the obvious need to address a school culture in which this video would be permissible, the administration will also consider taking leadership on anti-racism training for their students, staff, parent body, and even the wider community,” Fight Back Bay Ridge leaders told the Eagle via email.

Poly Prep, which was founded in 1854 in Downtown Brooklyn, moved to its sprawling, leafy campus in Dyker Heights in 1916. One of the elite private schools in New York City, its alumni include former New York Knicks center Joakim Noah, the son of rock legend John Bon Jovi, the daughters of the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. Max Rose. Tuition is approximately $50,000 a year.