Fri | Oct 19, 2018

Wesley Morris | Should Hillel Academy be closed down?

Published:Sunday | June 17, 2018 | 9:03 AMWesley Morris

We have a serious education issue which the country must face for the future welfare of its children. There is such a breach of the duty of care that the headmaster should resign and serious consideration should be given to closing this school as it fails both its students and Jamaica.

The Hillel Academy understands the nature of slavery, for the following was in the introduction to the assignment that resulted in justified public outrage: “During the practice of the Atlantic slave trade, enslaved peoples had no rights whatsoever. Whites could do to an enslaved person whatever they wanted. There was no compassion or justice for blacks. Blacks were often punished and punished most severely.”

In spite of this knowledge, a Hillel teacher set an assignment for grade nine students to describe a method of choice to punish the enslaved! The choices included were shackles, the cat-o’-nine, mutilation, bear trap, thumb screw and slave collar. Students were asked to explain how the punishment worked, and how it was imposed, to justify the use of the particular punishment and to explain how this punishment demonstrated the “lack of civility” of the enslaved African! These vulnerable children were asked to put themselves into the mind of a criminal and human abuser.

If Hillel would employ a similar approach in the teaching about the Holocaust, apartheid, rape, child abuse, the actions of serial murderers or any other kind of crimes against humanity, it does not deserve to be allowed to teach and nurture children. If it only does this in respect of slavery and in teaching about the enslavement of African, it is engaged in disastrous political indoctrination for children in Jamaica. Clearly whichever is true, it has abandoned its moral compass, and the headmaster, even though an apology was issued, should resign to make way for someone who can rescue this school.

The Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience to authority figures (much like the teachers at Hillel) were conducted at Yale University to measure the willingness of study participants to obey authority figures who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. These experiments raised questions about the research ethics and the methodology because of the extreme emotional stress and inflicted insight suffered by participants in certain kinds of research.

Inflicted insight is a possible consequence of subjects being given insight into their flaws through their participation in an experiment, often unexpectedly or causing emotional pain. The assignment given by Hillel caused emotional pain.

In his Stanford Prison study, Phillip Zimbardo performed a similar experiment to Stanley Milgram’s with similar psychologically damaging outcome for participants.  The experiment was stopped only when a researcher, not part of the design and execution of the study, intervened and criticised it – much like the teachers at Hillel Academy, the researchers claimed  not to be aware of the harm they were causing to the participants! But in both Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s cases, they were using adult students, which makes Hillel‘s case of using vulnerable minors far more serious.

On learning about the assignment a number of past students of Hillel took to Twitter to voice their outrage:

* “That school has never known how to teach slavery. Had me out here building slave ships. Had me out here having to pretend to be a slave for a week. Trash.”

* “My parents never understand why I say I hated that place. Things like that were only the tip of the iceberg.”

One Twitter user stated that as a past student, one exercise she and her peers were asked to do was to re-enact slavery, which saw water coolers, bathroom stalls and chairs being labelled ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’.

Because of the public outcry that resulted from the assignment, Hillel Academy’s board issued an apology stating: "Given the language used in the assignment, we accept and understand the concerns that have been raised; and acknowledge that there should have been greater sensitivity in the wording of this assignment.

"We consider ourselves educators of a future generation and encourage empathy and respect for every human being," it continued.

As one past teacher at Hillel pointed out when she learnt of the assignment: “It’s more than disturbing. Glad it’s been exposed!! Hope the real perpetrators understand what’s soooo very wrong with it. It’s not just the language or wording which is what they apologised for.”

Hillel’s apology, as it stands, is not for causing psychological distress to the students given the assignment and for being in dereliction of its duty to care for the welfare of the young minds in its charge but for the wording of the assignment. This demonstrates the unfitness of Hillel Academy leadership.

This is what Great Hearts Monte Vista, a school in the USA, said when an assignment was set asking students to write about the positive aspects of slavery provoked outrage from angry parents: “Last evening Great Hearts was made aware that one of our teachers at the Monte Vista North campus assigned homework that was very inappropriate and entirely inconsistent with Great Hearts philosophy and culture. In the eighth-grade American history class, students were asked to reflect on the differing sides of slavery. To be clear, there is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity.”

Yet in Jamaica, an island with a majority population descended from enslaved Africans, when apologising for the assignment, Hillel Academy did not unequivocally condemn slavery as immoral and a crime against humanity. This is a clear example of the failure of the institution and demonstrates it is not fit to care for the welfare of the children attending there.

The writer called the Hillel Academy, in an attempt to speak to principal Lloyd Holmes to get his point of view, but it seems that he didn’t feel the matter deserved his attention. (The last call was made on the morning of Monday, April 30.) I intended to ask if the principal was aware of the psychological damage this kind of assignment could have on the mental health of the students.

The Education Act (Part II section 3a) states that “It is lawful for the minister to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education shall be available to meet the needs of the Island.” 

It is clear that the Hillel Academy is in breach of this section of the Education Act.

What disciplinary provisions are there in the Education Act for this breach? Section 38. Part 1 of the Education Act is crystal clear: “If any teacher is found in disciplinary proceedings conducted in the prescribed manner by the commission, to be guilty of professional misconduct, the commission may- (a) admonish him; (b) censure him; (c) recommend that he be demoted; (d) suspend his registration for a period not exceeding one year; or (e) cause his name to be struck off the register of teachers.

Hillel Academy should be investigated by the Ministry of Education and serious consideration given to closing the school.

Dr Wesley Morris is a management and HR consultant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and drwesleymorris@hotmail.com.