White headmaster at New York Catholic school placed on leave after telling a Black student to kneel and apologize ‘the African way’

(CNN) — The White headmaster of a Catholic school on Long Island has been placed on leave following reports that he had a Black student kneel in apology last month, calling it “the African way” to apologize.

The headmaster was temporarily removed from his job at St. Martin de Porres School in Hempstead, New York, after parent Trisha Paul went to the local press regarding her 11-year-old son’s treatment at the school.

The incident was first reported by the New York Daily News.

“St. Martin’s neither condones nor accepts the actions of our headmaster,” Brother James Conway, the school’s acting headmaster, said in a statement. “The incident does not reflect our long, established values or the established protocols regarding student related issues.”

“We have launched an internal review of the incident and restated in the clearest terms what is the established and approved practice for student-faculty interaction,” Conway continued. “Our most important mission here at St. Martin’s is to provide our children with the spiritual and educational foundation that will allow them to lead exemplary lives.”

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Paul said she noticed her son seemed sad after school one day late last month. When she asked him what happened, he told her he’d been sent to the headmaster’s office for working on an assignment in his Literature class during designated reading time.

Paul said her son’s teacher took the assignment, tore it up, and brought her son to the headmaster’s office. Once there, Paul said, the headmaster told her son to kneel before the teacher in apology.

“I was filled with all different types of emotion,” Paul said. When the headmaster called a few days later to discuss dates for her son’s first communion, Paul said she brought it up.

“I asked him what happened,” she said. “He began to tell me a story about an African family that attended the school many years ago.”

The headmaster, according to Paul, told her about a former student whose father had once told him to bow when apologizing, calling it “the Nigerian way.”

“I was just at a loss for words,” Paul, who along with her son is Black and of Haitian descent, told CNN. “I didn’t understand the relevance.”

“I was really sad and disappointed,” she said, adding that she went to the school to speak with the headmaster a few days later. “I was hoping to get through to him,” she said.

In his office, the headmaster told the story again, Paul said. “This time, it was ‘the African way.'” She said she tried to convey to the headmaster that he’d “humiliated and degraded my son,” but said she didn’t feel heard.

Paul said she decided to remove her son from in-person classes, and he currently attends remotely.

“He has become extremely quiet,” she said Tuesday. “His interactions with everyone — family, friends — has changed. He’s sad. He has questions. He’s just trying to cope with this.”

“We are not all the same,” she said. “We are not all Africans. We are not all Nigerians.”

Paul said she was never notified of the disciplinary incident by the school.

“I do believe that had my son not told me about this incident, it would have been brushed under the rug,” she said. “I’m hoping there’s some kind of resolution where he does step down,” she said of the headmaster. “I want there to be change. I want my child to be that person who makes a difference.”

The headmaster, who is not being named by CNN, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither Conway nor St. Martin de Porres commented on the matter beyond the acting headmaster’s public statement.

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