NORTH EAST — A recent dispute over a summer reading list at the historic Tome School has been resolved as the school’s Board of Trustees released a letter over the weekend voicing its support for the head of the school and the rationale behind the reading list.
The issue began last week when at least one parent called on Tome Head of School Christine Szymanski to resign based on a summer reading list entitled: “Standing up for Diversity, Equity, Social Justice and Change.”
The list includes book suggestions for students at the school in grades K-12 as well as a list of suggested books for parents to read relating to issues such as racism, anti-racism, white supremacy, diversity and social justice issues.
One of the parents who led the call on Facebook for the resignation of Szymanski, Vincent Sammons, said in response to a request for comment from the Cecil Whig, in an open letter he also placed on his personal Facebook page, “My dispute with the Tome School was from ongoing political indoctrination by the head of school not race related issues. The first blatant incident was a while back with Tome did a “school walkout” to protest guns due to the mass shooting from a problem individual which was political at the time. I spoke with the head of school and asked if the school was teaching academics or political agendas through the school. While she continued to agree with my logic to my arguments about what a school should and should not be doing she ultimately agreed to disagree on why to continue with it or not.”
In his letter Sammons further stated, “This last incident was no different. I had a problem with the reading list as it was politically one sided on their “diversity” claims. Again the school followed suit with highly political Black Lives Matter theme that is foster by political money. If the school indeed wanted to be inclusive they would have included many other races like American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. But also note they go even further to push their political agenda to parents too. Many of these books to the parents implied they may racist.”
The books on the parent’s reading list included: “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi; “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson and “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad.
In his letter Sammons said the situation at the school has effected his son, “Since then it was reported by my son that the school was very politicize internally and everyone basically had to pick a side to ‘fit in.’ As you can imagine this creates a poor learning environment when everything inside is polarized with politics. I have overheard teachers complain about this but will not say a word and refuse to come forward in fear of losing their jobs for not walking the political agenda line.”
The entirety of Sammons letter can be read on page A4 of today’s Cecil Whig.
After seeing posts on Facebook, several alumni of Tome School circulated a petition in support of Szymanski. The petition, originally started by Annelise Coulter, was meant to not only support Szymanski, but bring attention and support for the list of suggested reading material as a way to better educate students to a wider point of view.
Coulter’s sister Amanda Diaz, a 2010 graduate of the school, who spoke to the Cecil Whig via a Zoom conference call from Los Angeles, said she first became aware of the issue relating to the list when her sister made her aware of what was going on at the school. That was when she got involved in contacting former Tome students as part of the petition effort.
Diaz’ friend Emma McCamant, herself a 2010 graduate of the school, who now lives in New York, also said she got involved with the petition drive thanks to Coulter, who she has known since they were in grade school.
“When I found out I went to look at the Facebook posts and some parents were really upset,” she said.
McCamant said she got upset at some of the responses from parents regarding the list and based upon a previous conversation with Diaz about how they could become more involved in their communities decided to get involved in the issue and petition drive.
Diaz said that as a former Tome graduate, one of the things the school instills in you the ability to think critically, to scrutinize information and to engage in intelligent discourse on a variety of issues. In that respect she said the original reading list represents the types of conversations about serious issues that need to be had at Tome and other schools.
“In no way should anyone be upset at an opportunity to become more educated,” she said.
McCamant pointed out that the list was part of the normal course of business at Tome school and that the idea of reading books on the list would be in the hopes of creating thoughtful conversation.
“No one is forcing anyone to think anything,” McCamant said again noting that the point was to create a dialogue, a dialogue that she believes needs to be had at the school.
Diaz said she was proud of her sister for starting the position and speaking up on the issue.
“She did not like the comments (on Facebook),” Diaz said noting that at some point comments became personal with respect to her sister.
Diaz noted that when she went to Tome there were only one or two persons of color including herself that she can recall and she thinks it is important that students at the school be exposed to a diversity of points of view.
McCamant said she felt she was exposed to other viewpoints at the school and that this is a goal the school has always espoused.
“The list wasn’t mandatory,” she noted. “It also included a list of movies to watch with your kids. The books for parents were not mandatory, they were simply a place where if you wanted to have a talk with your kids about these issues this is where you start.”
Diaz and McCamant said that due to these reasons they actively helped to get signatures for the petition and ended up being extremely surprised with the results.
“I thought we might get 500 signatures,” Diaz said, noting that as of Monday afternoon they had over 3,600 signatures, most of which had been received in a short span of time. By press time the petition had almost 3,800 signature.
Diaz noted that while many Tome graduates signed the petition it also included signatures from friends and supporters all around the U.S.
“I think this (the support for the petition) shows this is not a political issue it is a civil rights issue,” Diaz said.
She also noted the number of signatures is over five times the entire student body of the school.
On July 12, the Tome School Board of Trustees through President Thomas Kemp sent a letter to the school’s students, parents, faculty, alumni and friends stating the board’s position on the issue.
In the letter, Kemp said that during the end of the spring semester himself, Szymanski and board Vice President Edward Hostetter met in an informal meeting regarding having been contacted by some in the Tome community about the school issuing a statement regarding the “racial unrest across the country as a result of George Floyd’s death.”
The letter said Hostetter requested the school do more to address the issue by “developing a program that exposes students to issues of racial prejudice and social injustice through a structured educational environment that fosters understanding and learning.”
The letter goes on to state that Szymanski asked the head of the school’s literature department in the upper school to begin the task. The end result was the initial list that included works by Black authors centering on identity and diversity, equity and social justice.
The letter further states that there is no political goal or agenda and the school’s primary goal is the education of students so that they will be good citizens.
An effort was made to contact board officials, specifically board president Kemp to see if the board had any additional follow-up. Kemp responded by email “The Board of Trustees stands by its letter of July 12, 2020 and declines further comment.”
Recently, a second reading list was offered that included additional works that students could read from several different authors and genres. The Whig could not get an additional comment from the school on whether this additional list was in response to complaints made as a result of the initial list.