Two months after suspending a half dozen students for their roles in sending racially charged text messages, four of those students were welcomed back to Marist High School Friday morning.
“We needed to do some healing in this community,” said Marist Principal Larry Tucker. “And it has taken about two months to work through that process.”
The saga began in early November, when 25 year old Joshua Beal was shot and killed in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood by Chicago Police. The shooting led to protests by the organization Black Lives Matter and pro-police demonstrators. In the ensuing days, in a text message exchange among over 30 Marist students, racially insensitive messages were transmitted, attributed to six Marist seniors. All six were suspended.
“We needed to heal as a community,” said Marist President Hank Hammer. “And we needed to figure out how to do that.”
As the girls did schoolwork from home, Marist officials engaged the services of a consultant who staged a series of focus groups with students, faculty, and parents.
“I think we have a responsibility as a Catholic school to help our kids deal with some of these societal issues that walk through the door,” Hammer said. “It’s not just about disciplining somebody; you know as a Catholic school we’ve got to teach kids, how do you deal with this in the future.”
In the end, officials said, after a lot of work, consultation with the girls’ and their families, and perhaps even more prayer, a decision was made to welcome four of the students back to the Marist community during a service of forgiveness and reconciliation Friday morning.
“It’s our hope that our student body will learn what it means to be accountable,” said Marist Principal Larry Tucker. “But also to be compassionate and forgiving.”
Tensions had run high. At one point in the days after the shooting, when a Black Lives Matter group announced plans to stage a demonstration outside the school, classes were canceled. In the following weeks, school officials said they felt it was important to find a way to return the girls to school if possible, but to make certain that it was done in a way where important lessons were delivered.
“We have to redefine what does dialogue mean,” Hammer said. “What does civil conversation mean?”
School officials would not say which two girls had not returned. It is known that the families of two of the students had filed a lawsuit against Marist. The attorney for those families said last month that the controversial text message had been edited “to make it look more incriminating than it was.” He did not return calls seeking comment.
Marist administrators say the effort to move past the controversy is very much a work in progress.
“There are those who are probably going to look and see how genuine this action today was,” Hammer said. “There are others who genuinely miss them.”
The four girls who returned reportedly apologized to their fellow students. Hammer said he hoped all left with an important message.
“You know to give forgiveness, we have to realize that we all at one time or another have needed to be forgiven, or will need to be forgiven.”