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After Catholic academy is sued for being 'woke,' hundreds of alumni push back

TAMPA, Fla. – When Keri Kelly read through the lawsuit against her alma mater, she said she wondered if she was reading something from the satirical media site

Then, as she marked up the 45-page filing by philanthropists Anthony and Barbara Scarpo against Academy of the Holy Names, she decided someone needed to respond.

The suit, filed June 26, alleged that her old school had “become woke” by focusing too much on diversity and equity, and had strayed from Catholic teaching. The Scarpos demanded refunds of donations and tuition. They said the academy should stop billing itself as a Catholic institution.

Now Kelly and two other Holy Names alumnae are pushing back with an open letter that says the practices the Scarpos criticize are not lapses, but examples of Catholic faith in action.

As of Friday, the letter had been signed by more than 430 alumni from the Tampa school as well as other academies in Seattle and New York run by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

“We stand behind teachings of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the letter says. “We believe such teachings are not antithetical to the Catholic faith. On the contrary, we argue that these teachings are essential to development in the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith compels us to seek out practices that support and uplift all of our brothers and sisters.”

To Kelly, a 2017 Holy Names graduate, the lawsuit felt like a way to intimidate the academy’s new president. The Scarpos, who pledged $1.35 million to the school and were the public face of a fundraising campaign, named the past president several times in the lawsuit. The new president, Kevin Whitney, started July 1, days after the suit was filed.

Kelly said she doesn’t remember her school as particularly “woke.” As a senior, she and her friend Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dolan had tried to organize a Black History Month commemoration and were met with resistance from other students.

Dolan’s phone was also blowing up with texts about the lawsuit. One was from Allie Reichert, who had graduated in 2014 and is living in Washington, D.C.

What stunned Reichert most were the letters, included in the lawsuit, from parents other than the Scarpos. One had criticized a display on how to be an ally of the LGBTQ community. Another found fault with the school for bringing in a speaker to discuss white privilege — a topic that, the lawsuit alleges, made students feel guilty for being white.

“Reading those, I realized the pressure the academy is facing,” Reichert said. “We needed to show the academy there is an alumni base that cares these initiatives are being taught.”

Reichert remembered visiting the school a few months ago to talk to students about her work in women’s health in Ecuador. School administrators warned her to stay away from talking about anything too politically charged.

Reichert asked Dolan to let her know if she could do anything.

So Dolan connected the three. They began drafting their thoughts in a Google document, resulting in the open letter. Quoting the Bible, they encouraged the school to embrace teachings of love and further its work on inclusivity.

“While there are certainly more opportunities for growth, we are proud of the strides that AHN has made in recent years to include more diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the curriculum,” the letter says. “We would be angered and saddened to see our alma mater change the curriculum because of one family (who are no longer associated with the Academy).”

The alumni who signed range from the classes of 1979 to 2021. The letter also includes more than 40 pages of testimonials from graduates who shared their own experiences with the school.

Jennifer Liston Bigelow graduated from the academy in 1990, came back as a teacher and later served as curriculum director and principal for the Holy Names elementary school. She said she laughed when she first heard of the lawsuit.

“Quite frankly I was shocked to see within a lawsuit that terminology of ‘being woke,’” Bigelow said. “If they’re woke, they’ve been woke since 1881. This is nothing new.”

Academy of the Holy Names was the first school in Tampa, she said, and has a long history of teaching students to support the marginalized and understand those different from them — something she said falls within Catholic teachings. What made her most proud, she said, was to see some of her former students sign the letter as young adults.

“This is what the academy is all about — infusing the charism of the Sisters of the Holy Names into the lives of our students so they go out into the world and speak out against injustice,” Bigelow said.

With many Catholic schools across the country facing financial pressures, she said the lawsuit served as a wake-up call for alumni to do more when they can.

Dolan said she cried a few times reading the testimonials that flowed in.

“I definitely expected people to sign but I didn’t expect people to be vulnerable and share their stories,” she said.

The letter spread through alumni networks and recent graduates were asked to reach out to their mothers. It also reached the Scarpos.

Anthony Scarpo said he found the letter to be hurtful and that it mischaracterized his and his wife’s intentions. All they want, he said, is for the school to return to Catholicism. After leading a school fundraising campaign, he said, they now wish to be the face of what he believes to be the “silent majority” of parents who are upset with the school’s teachings.

“Barbara and I are not interested in hurting an institution that we love,” he said. “We want to make a point that the administration has gone too far. They have taken liberties with our children that are beyond the scope of education.”

The school, he said, took a turn in a different direction around 2018. He said the memories described by former students now writing in are ones he wishes his two daughters could have had too.

He said he understands the world is changing and that delicate conversations about inclusion should take place. But, he said, they need to be done with more input from parents and the church. He said he hopes the Diocese of St. Petersburg intervenes. The school reports to the Sisters of the Holy Names, which does not provide for accountability, Scarpo contends.

”When you begin to teach social justice without the umbrella of Catholicism and you leave God out of the discussion and leave anything that is Catholic out of the discussion, now all you have become is a social justice warrior,” Scarpo said. “You create terrible confusion among these young ladies. You create animosity between the students.”

Academy spokeswoman Emily Wise said the school, which has rejected the Scarpos’ claims, couldn’t comment much further because of the litigation.

“We have received the alumni letter and are grateful for their interest in and devotion to the academy,” she said.

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