Tone’Nae Bradley-Toomer (right) wants people to know she loves St. Teresa’s Academy. That’s why she wants to see it be the place she dreamed of attending as a little girl — a place that nurtures sisterhood and social justice. Her aunt and guardian, Carla Smocks, is co-chairwoman of a parent diversity initiative at the school. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com
Tone’Nae Bradley-Toomer (right) wants people to know she loves St. Teresa’s Academy. That’s why she wants to see it be the place she dreamed of attending as a little girl — a place that nurtures sisterhood and social justice. Her aunt and guardian, Carla Smocks, is co-chairwoman of a parent diversity initiative at the school. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Jeneé Osterheldt

St. Teresa’s healing after swastika scandal & bullying: ‘It’s going to take all of us’

By Jeneé Osterheldt

josterheldt@kcstar.com

October 16, 2017 05:03 PM

UPDATED October 17, 2017 10:36 AM

Don’t be fooled by its delicate, dainty nature. Lace is strong enough to endure twists and knots to form its path. Perhaps the prettiest thing about lace is how we love it despite its holes.

St. Teresa of Avila was the patron saint of lace makers. When you pull up to St. Teresa’s Academy, you can’t miss the lace of white laser-cut aluminum wrapped around the school chapel. It looks like the lace of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

“Christ pours into the holes,” school president Nan Bone tells me as we sit in a conference room on campus on a Friday afternoon.

She’s right. Sometimes we have to expose the gaps so we can grow. Kansas City’s private, all-girls Catholic high school has been enduring a lot of growing pains over the last month.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

There was September’s swastika beer pong party and how the anti-semitic behavior was handled (meekly, many say) by the administration. Then the story of 16-year-old senior Tone’Nae Bradley-Toomer and how she’s endured a campus culture of microaggressions. No wonder alumnae and the community at large are outraged and want to #TransformSTA.

Student talks about what it's like to be black at St. Teresa's Academy

Being black in an all-girls Catholic school can bring you unwanted attention for the wrong reasons. One St. Teresa's Academy senior talks about what she's endured.

Jill Toyoshiba and Jenee Osterheldt The Kansas City Star

Schools across the country are battling hate speech and aggression. Bone wants better for St. Teresa’s Academy. The outrage alumnae feel? The letters they’ve written, meetings they’ve had to ensure the school acknowledges there’s work to do? She’s here for it.

“That’s exactly what we taught them,” she says. “To be strong women with a voice. So we wouldn’t expect anything else. We need to learn from it. If we have done something that is not loving and caring, neighbor to neighbor, then tell us. Help us.”

The school is forming a commission of alumnae, administration and community members to help shape decisions and influence positive change. They have met with parents, teachers, students and alumnae to ensure that all voices are being heard. And taken seriously.

“We are trying to do great things but of course we stumble and fall,” Bone says. “Our teachers are absolutely the best, they are second to none. But we need everyone. We have to have conversations. We won’t shout. People can be angry and certainly share their concern. But we will take so much away from this if we come together so we can understand each other. It’s going to take all of us.”

The school, as part of conflict resolution training, has compassionate listening groups. It’s a mix of 16-20 students and an adviser. The point is to provide healing through active conversation and accountability.

“We want to be more intentional about having more of those circles,” she says. “I know in my heart that we will be a better school because of this dialogue.”

But it’s not just talk. St. Teresa’s is taking action.

In light of the anger over the student beer-pongers’ punishment — it included one day of reflection that does not go on their permanent records — and the fact that racist remarks are not considered as harmful as pulling a fire alarm, the school is hiring an outside consultant to look over their policies. They are inviting members of the community (myself included) into the school for panel discussions and student workshops.

Bone acknowledges that diversifying the school’s staff is essential in its efforts to be more inclusive — the staff is 90 percent white.

Star Galaxy, St. Teresa’s parents’ diversity initiative, has long been committed to recruiting students and staff who are more reflective of the community. The school hopes to hire someone to help with diversity recruitment.

Carla Smocks, Tone’Nae’s aunt and Star Galaxy co-chairwoman, says the best way forward is loving thy neighbor.

“I am willing to work with the school for change,” she says. “Whether it is bullying or racial harassment, the handbook speaks to loving thy neighbor. I am in support of initiatives that truly support the mission and values and educates all on such. Accountability is key.”

Bone still stands by her decision to not expel the girls who posed in front of a table with plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika and posted the pics on Snapchat. There were three other consequences she can’t disclose, but none of them included suspension or marks on their records. The girls had to take accountability in sessions they had with their classmates over the course of a four-day junior class retreat. The school also announced a number of initiatives to educate against discrimination.

“I have been here 11 years and I have never expelled a student,” Bone says. “I want to educate them, to keep them here and give them all the tools they need to realize this is a terrible error.”

As for Tone’Nae, Bone says she is a school ambassador and they need her.

“She will help us in this struggle to learn and grow,” Bone says. “We are a school of women. We want all women respected.”

Speaking out wasn’t easy for Tone’Nae. Since her story was published, there’s a misconception that she hates her school. She wants people to know she loves St. Teresa’s. That’s why she wants to see it be the place she dreamed of attending as a little girl — a place that nurtures sisterhood and social justice.

She doesn’t want to operate as an outsider in her school. She wants what we all want: acceptance.

Each girl should put herself in the other person’s shoes, Tone’Nae says. She believes each of us has to ask how we can contribute to and change the culture.

At the start of the school year, St. Teresa’s has a sort of legacy ceremony. Seniors remind the freshmen that they are standing on the shoulders of many great women. They are charged to go forth and serve their dear neighbor.

I don’t believe serving is done with perfection. Like the lace, we have a lot of holes, too. We fill them with faith, forgiveness, friendship. I pray the love pours through as St. Teresa’s stars rise again.