‘We feel unwelcome’: Poly Prep students of color accuse faculty of failing them in wake of white pupils’ blackface video

Poly shocker: Dyker prep school rocked by allegations of administrator, kids boozing with hookers in Cuba
Photo by Paul Martinka

Administrators at an elite Dyker Heights private school must show public support for its students of color and condemn racism on campus, a group of pupils demanded after an explosive video surfaced showing some of the academy’s white students imitating monkeys while in blackface.

Poly Prep Country Day School staffers’ silence following the video’s discovery is a slap in the face to black students, according to leaders of a black-student group, who confronted Poly Prep officials at a Friday assembly.

“Left to experience our peers’ continued disregard of our humanity, students of color question why our administration fails to take a clear stance against their behavior,” seniors Jeovanna deShong-Connor and Talisha Ward said at the demonstration, according to a report in the school’s student newspaper, the Polygon.

The upperclassmen made their plea after Poly Prep officials uncovered the allegedly 2-year-old video, which was shared on a private website for school students on Jan. 11 before the New York Daily News published it in a Jan. 19 report. The footage shows two white female students wearing black paint or makeup on their faces as they made apish noises and gestures.

And school officials’ decision not to immediately discipline those involved — or call the clip racist in an e-mail sent to families following the video’s discovery — made the prestigious campus a hostile environment for students of color, especially black pupils, according to deShong-Connor and Ward.

“We feel unwelcome in a space where we are supposed to grow not only academically, but emotionally and socially,” the pair said in the Polygon report. “We feel uncomfortable in our own halls, in our own classes, and on our own campus with our so-called peers.”

The seniors demanded the faculty implement required civics and empathy courses for students, hire more staff of color, amend the school’s code of conduct to address hateful actions and speech, and send a second e-mail that clearly states the girls in the video wore blackface, and outlines how administrators would prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.

deShong-Connor and Ward also called for a public apology from the students in the video and the third girl who allegedly filmed it.

And they implored the entire school community to recognize the incident as “the most recent in a series of racist and intolerable acts that have alienated a large portion of Poly’s community, rather than as an isolated event,” according to the Polygon report, which said the seniors led a student sit-in in the academy’s halls, where they continued to push for the changes following the assembly.

Poly Prep headmaster Audrius Barzdukas praised deShong-Connor and Ward’s show of leadership, and subsequently organized an after-school discussion about the video and its aftermath on Jan. 23, the Polygon reported.

And the day after the assembly, school officials called the video “highly offensive” and “an egregious violation of our community values and code of conduct” in a statement posted to the Poly Prep Facebook page.

The statement, however, did not explicitly condemn the video as racist, instead noting that the school does not tolerate racism or prejudice, and that administrators encourage the outraged students’ pursuit of social justice.

The missive also claimed officials “took immediate action” upon discovering the video, but did not specify that action, explaining staff does not discuss disciplinary procedures against individual students in order to protect their privacy.

deShong-Connor, Ward, and school reps could not be reached for comment by press time.

A handful of pols including Mayor DeBlasio, Councilman Justin Brannan (D–Dyker Heights), and Rep. Max Rose (D–Bay Ridge) — a Poly Prep alum — condemned the video in tweets over the weekend, with Hizzoner demanding school leaders start answering questions about their handling of the incident.

“Poly Prep has some real explaining to do,” DeBlasio tweeted on Sunday. “And what’s absolutely clear is that a conversation about racism at this school is long overdue.”

But the blackface video is far from the first controversy to plague the prep school in recent years.

In 2012, administrators settled a sexual abuse suit against former Poly Prep football coach Philip Foglietta, but refused to apologize to his victims and their families for another two years, despite calls from some to do so far sooner.

In 2015, a Poly Prep employee filed a lawsuit alleging that an administrator used school funding to bring a group of pupils on a 2012 trip to Cuba, where he allegedly provided them with booze, Cuban cigars, and hookers while he scouted out a private investment opportunity. The whistleblower who filed the lawsuit then claimed that former headmaster David Harman sent a goon to intimidate people who might speak out against the accused administrator, and Harman stepped down from his role leading the academy months later.

And in 2017, Poly Prep officials fired lacrosse coach James Brooks Sweet for chaperoning a week-long trip to Florida where student-athletes allegedly used fake IDs to buy booze — prompting Brooks Sweet to file a wrongful termination lawsuit in response.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.