In May, I wrote about the wretched treatment of student Jessica Urbina by her high school, Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco. Jessica was humiliated by the school when it refused to include her graduation photo in the class yearbook on the grounds that she had worn a tuxedo rather than a dress. I wrote…
“The rule is sexist, archaic, unthinking, prejudicial, arbitrary, cruel and wrong. The best way to change a rule that is sexist, archaic, unthinking, prejudicial, arbitrary, cruel and wrong is to break it, and see if those in charge have the sense and compassion to do the right thing. The administrators of Sacred Heart Cathedral High School flunked. I doubt that Jessica was even trying to provoke a confrontation: like any normal student, she wanted her image in the most important piece of memorabilia of her high school years to accurately portray her as she was, not as some alien ideal dictated by the Catholic Church. There was nothing to be achieved by banning the photo.”
It turns out that by the time I had discovered the story and commented on it, Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep had already reversed its decision. It wouldn’t normally garner much praise here for that: we have seen legions of stories of schools taking cruel, mean-spirited and idiotic measures against innocent students and then back-tracking later, only because the publicity and public backlash became too toxic. In this case, however, the school announced its reversal with an apology of unusual sincerity and grace, which I will reprint in its entirety:
May 19, 2014
Dear SHC Community,
We begin by formally apologizing to Jessica and her parents, Tony and Ana Urbina. We deeply regret the pain caused in the past few days. The information below is meant to provide our entire community with an account of how we have come to this place, but that account is in no way meant to excuse our actions, or lack thereof, and the real, significant impact they had on the Urbina family.
We also want to thank the Urbina family, not only for entrusting both of their children to our care over the past eight years, but for talking with us and working with us to resolve these issues in as positive a way as possible.
On Thursday, May 15, Mr. Cannon met with Jessica. After that meeting, it was clear that the school had not adequately communicated to Jessica or her parents the decision made several months ago regarding senior portraits. As in past school years, any senior who sat for senior portraits but did not conform to the dress code did not have a portrait included in the portrait pages of the yearbook. Given the nature of this specific case, however, we believe that decision, while conforming with our policy, was wrong. Moreover, the lack of communication with the family led to even greater anguish as it proved unexpected to the student and family as it came at the very end of the school year.
As a result of Thursday’s conversation, we immediately made the decision to ensure that Jessica’s senior portrait photo would appear in all places and events where other senior portraits appeared. We also reassured her, as we have throughout the school year and at various school functions, that her choice of clothing for graduation and end of the year ceremonies would be supported.
On Friday, May 16, the school communicated that it will change its policy regarding senior portraits. We agree with our students who showed solidarity with their classmate that the current policy regarding senior portraits is not adequate to meet the needs of our families or our mission. We will involve our students, families, and Board in crafting the updated policy.
That same Friday afternoon, we met with the entire Urbina family to express our regret and acknowledge our failure to adequately communicate about this issue several months ago when these discussions and decisions should have been made collaboratively.
While we cannot undo the impact of this decision, the lack of adequate communication, nor the impact of the last few days, we can move forward in a manner that we believe represents the best of our school community.
As mentioned above, Jessica’s senior portrait will appear in all the same venues as all other senior portraits. The school administration decided to reprint the yearbook to include Jessica’s photo in the portrait section. When we shared this decision with the family, they suggested that because of the love and support shown by her schoolmates over these last few days, Jessica and her family do not want students to wait to receive their yearbooks. Rather than reprinting the yearbooks, therefore, they have suggested other methods to include Jessica’s senior portrait that will allow students to receive the book this week, as scheduled. We accept this suggestion and honor their request.
We understand those who are critical of our school and leadership based on the information provided publically. We are deeply appreciative of both our critics and those who contacted us expressing support and prayers. We also acknowledge the large number of alumni who wrote to share their experiences at SHC, most confirming the positive and supportive atmosphere they found at SHC, especially during the years when they came to an understanding and appreciation of their own sexual orientation and gender identity.
While we believe SHC to be a safe and supportive environment for all, this situation has reminded us that we still have much growth to achieve. While many gay and lesbian alumni and students have commented on the inclusive, supportive aspect of our school community, others have remarked on some prejudice that still exists. As a school, we must better learn how to support our students who are navigating issues of gender identity.
Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn. While we would have preferred to have this learning be less public than the current situation, especially for the impact it has on individuals and families, we are a community open to sharing our struggles and joys with the wider world so that we can all learn from each other, whether from successes or failures. More than 300 years ago, St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of our founders, said that our students will learn far more from us by our actions than by the words we speak. This is one of those moments.
While there are those who want to make this situation an example of problems with Catholicism, we want to be clear that this letter, our apology, and our decisions moving forward come not in spite of our Catholicism, but precisely because of it.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is very clear in the pastoral letter, Always Our Children. Understanding this current event to be an educational opportunity, we want to remind all in our community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, some of what the Bishops have to say. While these statements are generally directed toward our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we believe that they are no less true of all our LGBT community members:
“Every person has an inherent dignity because he or she is created in God’s image.”
“It is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination. Homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2358)”
“Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful.”
“All in all, it is essential to recall one basic truth. God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are, and one component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation.”
In our final words to our student, Jessica, and all our other LGBT students, past, present and future, we repeat the final words of the Bishops. “In you God’s love is revealed. You are always our children.”
John F. Scudder, Jr. ’73 and Gary Cannon
SHC President and Principal
Note: While it is not our usual practice to write so publically about a current student, we thought it wise to be direct in reference to the student given the media coverage that has already occurred and our desire to be as forthright as possible. We shared a draft of this letter with Mr. and Mrs. Urbina, and they approved its general content and direct reference to their daughter.
Not only is this as complete, humble and sincere a retraction of the school’s hurtful actions as possible, it is also as Category 1 apology as described on the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale—“1. An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example. I’m not sure there could be a better example.
As blogger and teacher Rick Jones notes, in the comment that alerted Ethics Alarms to the letter, we can only “hope that other contentious moments might be resolved as gracefully.”
Amen to that.
Pointer: Rick Jones. (Thanks, Rick.)