Administration urges students to come forward.
By Sarah Swenson, Editor-in-chief
Nantucket High School has recently been the victim of several malicious and hateful graffiti messages, including swastikas and homophobic slurs, located in both male and female school bathrooms. Administration, concerned with this rash of graffiti, stresses the importance of students coming forward to a trusted administrator or faculty member when they see something hurtful or destructive. However, several current and graduated students report that this type of vandalism is nothing new, and imply that the graffiti is symptomatic of the culture at the school as a whole.
Among the recently reported and alleged graffiti are swastikas, scratched onto a toilet paper dispenser and the stall door, homophobic slurs carved into and written on stall separators, and the n-word, written in varying sizes several times in a male restroom, accompanied by crude drawings. All graffiti has since been removed from bathrooms, by administration or students. Principal Mandy Vasil notes that she personally removed the one incidence of graffiti reported to her this year within a day of the student’s email. Students say that this is not always the case.
“I’ve sent emails to the school about it… but nothing happens.” said former NHS student Jordin Graves, a graduate of the class of 2020, who confirmed that he sent emails to administration every year for his first three years. Graves never emailed Vasil about graffiti because during his last year at the high school he was rarely in the building at all due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Graves was dismayed by the lack of response he received, feeling that though the school always “say something like how they’re against hate speech and all that, and then they never do nothin’ about it. When [former principal John Buckey] was here, he didn’t care at all, really. It was the same response every time. Nothing changed.”
An anonymous 2020 graduate, recalled a similar experience: “I think it was either freshman year or sophomore year that a similar situation was happening with the graffiti… everyone… knew about it and I know it was reported.” This student said that he did not remember any follow-up from the administration of the time; even though the administration was made aware, he saw no outward acknowledgment or reaction from the school. “They just kind of painted it over,” he explained.
Some students have come forward and found their complaints dealt with in a timely manner, while others claim to have told faculty or administration about hate-motivated bullying or graffiti and have been met with no satisfactory response. Vasil stresses that “[students] need to come forward, and if it’s not to me, or Mrs. Psaradelis, because they feel uncomfortable about that, then go to a trusted teacher, or go to a counselor, and report those things.”
Psaradelis, who commented that she worries about “students who are not feeling safe to come forward to report something, for fear that nothing will be done, or that the wrong thing will be done,” validated the student’s claims, admitting that “both have happened in the past… depending on who one reports to.”
An anonymous junior explained that her discomfort with the school reached well beyond graffiti.
She recounted an incident where “boys across the hall were trashing their teacher because of the amount of homework he gave out that day or something. Then all of a sudden they were calling him a [homophobic slur]. They joked about him getting AIDS,” describing her “shock and anger” at the language and the laissez-faire way they used it.
This student did not come forward because she “felt it would be ignored.” She said that this was not the first time she had heard students at the high school use these words, and she did not expect change because “a stern talking to isn’t going to change [who they are]. If anything, I was afraid that if they got reprimanded but no real action was taken, they would become more aggressive.”
Vasil reports that similar activity in the student body was dealt with recently, and students who made the comments were disciplined. Psaradelis, who is in charge of student disciplinary actions, confirmed that the students involved were suspended.
Students remembered instances of un-investigated hateful graffiti where no students saw consequences under Buckey’s and Vasil’s administrations, but Vasil is clear that she wants to work on building a school community in which all students feel safe. Starting last year, she started a social justice group at the school, which was unfortunately stymied by Covid. She encouraged racial sensitivity training in 2020, and has also begun to implement a “social-emotional curriculum” that would involve training for faculty as well as work with students.
“We’re just at step one to get this going,” she explained. “We’re discussing with our faculty what’s gonna be the best way to implement this so we’re doing the best that we can for our students because that’s really the priority.” She said that she hopes this training will give students some coping mechanisms for when they feel the kind of stress that could precede an incident of vandalism, and also give teachers coping mechanisms.
Still, some students do not feel the effects of the efforts.
The aforementioned 2020 graduate had similar experiences in his time at the school, citing personal knowledge of kids “getting away with… the use of derogatory terms just because [students] don’t report it, out of fear of getting the attacker in trouble,” and explaining that he himself had been on the receiving end of homophobic bullying but had never reported it because he was afraid of further or heightened persecution.
He said that he was targeted for his sexuality, called names, and insulted in the hallway or in classes for the way he dressed: “I remember specifically in freshman year… a friend of mine in Latin class overheard someone calling me the f word because of the pants I was wearing that day.”
A third anonymous student, also a junior, confirmed that this behavior exists at the high school, recounting an incident in which they were called a slur in a virtual meet for a class because of the way they were dressed. “I got quite a few ‘it’s’ apparently,” they said. This student does not use the pronouns corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, and part of the harassment they reported included being called “it” instead of their chosen pronouns. “It made me quite upset… I stopped turning my camera on for a while.”
This student said that they reported the incident to the administration, bringing the issue to Vasil with evidence and corroboration from friends and their parents, but saw no real response, and no consequences for the students harassing them: “It was just a lot of time and energy spent by my parents and my friends for no outcome.”
The student confirmed that these students had been talking about them consistently and the incident was not isolated.
Vasil has a different recollection of the event. After talking with others involved, she gave a written statement to Veritas: “This incident was reported to the administration. A meeting was set the same day to discuss the incident and garner additional information. To our knowledge, the incident was settled and no new reports were made.”
“They have all this hate speech stuff, the handbook… the fact that— they know what’s being written in there, and they’re not doing anything about it! They don’t know where their priorities are at,” Graves commented, referencing the schools’ choice to publicize their disdain for the Devious Licks graffiti TikTok trend (see: Devious Licks, Natalie Mack) but not the hate speech.
Vasil explained the school’s lack of response to hate speech vocalized and written in the building by stating that “we didn’t know… If we don’t know, we can’t do anything about it.”
Psaradelis and Vasil spent some of their summer working together on plans to help students have a voice in the school and to make sure that respect for students is strong, so they feel confident using it.
Psaradelis emphasizes the importance of students feeling secure in a “consistent” response from school leadership when they report something that may be of particularly sensitive concern. She herself described her way of dealing with intolerance and bullying at the school as “restorative justice”, a concept in which the focus is put on educating offenders about why what they did was wrong, giving them tools to help them not do it again, and making sure that they make amends with their victims and the community. Students who know why their actions were hurtful and have the tools to otherwise vent their stress are less likely to repeatedly offend, she explained.
In general, the student and administrative perspectives on the school’s culture seem to be incompatible.
The anonymous junior who reported their own experiences with hate-based bullying said that the school “has had issues dealing with racism and transphobia and homophobia in the past and it doesn’t feel like anything is happening.” This opinion is reflected by many of the students, interviewed for this article or who corroborated stories but were unwilling to share their own experiences for varying reasons.
Psaradelis disagreed; she believes change is transpiring, though it may seem too slow to some: “We haven’t arrived, but I’m proud of the progress we have made. It will never be quick enough progress. We will still stumble and make mistakes, but we’re making progress.”