The mother of an 11-year-old sixth-grader at a Long Island Catholic school is accusing the institution’s headmaster of forcing her Black son to kneel and apologize after claiming that’s the “African way” of saying sorry.
In an interview with New York Daily News, Trisha Paul said St. Martin de Porres Marianist School headmaster John Holian forced her Haitian-American son to get on his knees and render an apology after his English teacher reported him for doing the wrong assignment. When Paul got in touch with Holian to discuss the incident after her son told him what had occurred, the headmaster allegedly justified his action by claiming he learned that disciplinary practice from a Nigerian parent who told him it’s an “African way” of rendering an apology. Paul said the explanation left her shocked.
“Once he started mentioning this African family, that’s when it just clicked,” Paul told the news outlet. “Like, this is not normal procedure. I felt there was no relevance at all. Is he generalizing that everyone who is Black is African? That’s when I realized something is not right with this situation.”
Paul, who said the February incident left her son embarrassed, believes race played a factor. “My son was humiliated, hurt, embarrassed, sad and confused,” she said. “He reads about things happening because of your skin color. To experience it… he’s just trying to process it in his 11-year-old brain.”
In a phone call on March 1 to discuss the incident, Paul said Holian admitted the punishment in question wasn’t a standard disciplinary procedure. He also couldn’t properly clarify how the kneeling story about the Nigerian family was relevant after making reference to it. And when the two met face to face to further discuss the incident, Holian alleged her son was made to apologize to the teacher for being disrespectful. Paul, however, said the school had never contacted her about her son’s conduct, adding that he is a “well-mannered, honor roll student.”
During their discussion, Holian also told Paul he made her son kneel because simply saying sorry wouldn’t have changed anything. “If I had said to him ‘apologize and get back to class’… it would’ve meant nothing,” Holian told Paul in the video recording of their meeting, according to New York Daily News. “So it was changing the way you say ‘I apologize.’”
Holian also doubled down on forcing Paul’s son to kneel, saying he learned that form of punishment from a Nigerian parent whose child was enrolled at the school.
“This father came in and said, ‘you’re going to apologize to this teacher the African way, and you’re going to get down on your knees and apologize.’ I’ve never seen that before,” Holian said, adding that that form of punishment is justifiable irrespective of a child’s race.
“I have six kids, and four boys. And if one of them is really acting rude and arrogant… I will say at times, ‘get on your knees and apologize,’” he told Paul. “I was speaking to your son as I would my own son.”
Meanwhile, school authorities released a statement on Friday announcing Holian has been placed on temporary leave pending an investigation into the incident.
“I want to assure you that St. Martin’s neither condones nor accepts the actions of our headmaster,” acting headmaster James Conway wrote in the statement. “The incident does not reflect our long, established values or the established protocols regarding student related issues.”
Though Holian apologized to Paul over the incident, the mother said the harm has already been caused. “He showed no remorse until he realized how it’s impacted my son,” she told New York Daily News. “He’s going to therapy. He’s been very reserved and humiliated.” Paul also said her son now tries to “stay away from the headmaster and not speak to the teacher if need be.”