Short-lived Twitter account raises questions about diversity
What happens when an anonymous Twitter account goes on the attack?
May 29, 2019
The account’s beginnings
It was the last block of the day on Thursday when students opened computers and phones to read a message from Head of School Bryn Roberts. Roberts sent an email May 16 to the St. Paul Academy and Summit School community informing them of an anonymous Twitter account spreading rumors and allegations surrounding faculty equity.
The account posted roughly once per day between May 13 to 21. The user noted “racism,” “discrimination,” and “high turnover” rates regarding teachers of color at SPA. The individual also created a website with an anonymous tip line for submitting information.
The Rubicon reached out to the account via DM for an interview but the account holder declined.
The account followed over 500 users affiliated with SPA, its students and faculty, and “has gone to great lengths to conceal their identity,” according to Roberts’s email. It appears that the user purchased a domain with an anonymous registrar and set up an encrypted email address for their platform.
According to Roberts, the administration learned of the account on May 13 when community members contacted him expressing concern. Administration set a course of action that day:
“We came together and talked about it, and immediately decided that it was very important that we respond to it and figure out how to respond to it. And quite honestly,” Roberts said. “When you confront something like this, where you’ve got an attacker going after your school, and spreading rumors and untruths like this, and misrepresenting facts, it’s really pretty worrisome. It’s like a gut punch.”
Considering the account holder’s insistence on anonymity, a sense of mystery shrouded the incident. Students mused over theories surrounding the account and their intent.
As Roberts explained, there was little hope for uncovering the user’s identity.
“I asked our tech department if they could discern who that was, and we discovered pretty quickly that we weren’t going to be able to find out,” he said.
However, uncovering the identity of the account was far from his priority.
“We were curious,” Roberts said, “but that was never my focal point. My focus was really on responding to it and determining how to respond to it. Because I thought first of what was the right way to respond on behalf of the school.”
The administration quickly resolved to send a community-wide email as opposed to remaining silent. The carefully worded memo focused on the issue and not the account holder. Admittedly, it drew new attention to the account in the few hours after it was sent, sparking a flurry of conversations among students.
Most students were oblivious to the account prior to Roberts’s email. Some wondered why the administration decided to notify the entire community so promptly—but Roberts explains that it was the only option.
“I thought it was important for us not to hide. I thought we should let people know where we are, and it was very important for us to get a message out that was affirmative and accurate,” he said.
Behind faculty diversity
Director of Intercultural Life Karen Dye addressed some of the account’s statements, elaborating on the school’s stance on diversity among the faculty. She clarified that, although the account had inaccuracies, it also touched on legitimate concerns.
“Over eight teachers have left since last year. It is true that we don’t have enough teachers of color,” Dye said. “That was echoed in Common Ground assembly a few weeks ago, but it’s not for lack of trying.”
Dye delved into the recruiting process and described some of the challenges faced in terms of increasing teacher diversity.
“We do a lot of recruiting,” Dye said. “I’m off campus all the time recruiting across the country for teachers of color that would be even interested in coming to Minnesota or to SPA, and to fill the jobs we have.”
SPA uses job sites and newspapers to promote openings with a focus on recruiting teachers of color: “All together, there’s about eight or nine different places that we advertise, and many of those are firms with a specific eye on diversity,” Dye said.
One such website is Minnesota Diversity. Their mission statement reads “we are committed to bringing local talent and businesses together through innovative solutions to enhance the livelihood, diversity, and growth of our communities nationwide.” Entering “St. Paul Academy” into their search function brings up results for positions ranging from “Lower School Science Teacher” to “Upper School Jazz Band Director” to “Payroll Coordinator.”
Location may even be the largest hurdle in the search process; according to Dye, roughly 50% of people of color at job fairs and other hiring events decline once she mentions Minnesota.
“There’s just a perception, particularly among certain communities of color, that Minnesota is this frozen tundra,” Dye said. “If they get past that, then it’s a matter of finding the right position for people. Sometimes we interview a lot of teachers, but we don’t have positions available for them.”
Roberts sees this as well.
“We want to have a faculty that reflects the changing face of the school and the Twin Cities,” he said. “And it’s a hard match. Sometimes you have to have the right person, the subject matter has to align, they have to be great, they have to be experts in their subjects that they study, and they have to be terrific teachers that care about kids, that want to get better, and they have to want to come to Minnesota.”
Other times, teacher salaries come into play. Public schools pay more than private schools.
“All independent schools really struggle getting teachers of color,” Dye said. “We don’t have the federal money that public schools do. I don’t want to say that people go into teaching for the money, but of course…they have to have money to live. So it’s a balancing act, and we lose a lot of people to the money.”
Despite these hurdles, Roberts noted that SPA has made recent progress in teacher diversity, the results of which we will see this August.
“We have already hired new faculty of color for next year,” he said.
The departure of teachers of color
A central concern of the Twitter account was the high number of faculty of color leaving this year. In fact, three out of the eight teachers of color departing are Upper School faculty, including Dye herself.
Though the account holder pushed a theory that their departures are systemic, Dye emphasized that there are many valid reasons for a teacher to leave.
“There are moves, there are better job offers, and I can even speak for myself, because I’m one of them,” Dye said. “I had an opportunity to go move across the country and be with my daughter in a warmer climate.”
Regardless, Dye thinks that SPA must improve its environment if it wants to keep teachers of color.
“I do think that SPA has to look at the culture in terms of retaining teachers of color,” Dye said. “There are some things about the climate and culture of the school that obviously don’t make it attractive enough for them to stay over these other job opportunities or family moves.”
Roberts acknowledges that; before Dye’s efforts as Director of Intercultural Life, the school was a very “white” environment.
It was, he said, “a more limited curriculum and not necessarily hospitable to faculty of color and not open on issues of race and identity inequity,” he said. “I think that’s what’s changed over time.”
Some recent initiatives reflect that change. Courageous Conversations protocol trainings help students tackle difficult conversations and face the elephant in the room. In fact, Roberts explained that it is central to improving the school’s culture.
However, the full impact of Courageous Conversations has yet to be felt. In a Rubicon poll gauging the opinions on Courageous Conversations, only 8% of students agreed that the protocols have made it easier to enter difficult conversations, and only 22% said that the protocols made them more culturally aware. The majority of students, 54% and 56% respectively, disagreed with these two statements.
What’s the bottom line? According to Dye, “We have some work to do. No matter how good another offer is, if we’re not a school that people want to stay at, we have to look at why that is.”
The rise of the account
Roberts’s email arguably emboldened the account holder. Their first Tweet, sent one day after the email, read:
“Dear Bryn, thanks for the megaphone 📣 and newfound attention. To my new readers: have a great weekend. See you on Monday.”
Several students and parents responded to the Tweets disapprovingly. They called it a “toxic” means of discourse and “childish.”
The false statistics and peculiar allegations spoke for themselves, but many found the anonymity egregious. Students scoffed at the excessive use of the word “allegedly.”
Over its short span, the account garnered little support.
Junior Arie Walker posted a message on the Opinion Board expressing her thoughts.
“As one of the few students of color at SPA, I can understand where you’re coming from regarding the lack of diversity at school,” she wrote. “There are more steps SPA could be taking to obtain a more diverse community. However, how you’ve chosen to take on this issue is beyond disrespectful.”
Roberts commented on the general attitude toward the account, saying “overwhelmingly our students want to make the right choices.”
He went on to expand on the ideas of productive and destructive discourse.
“I think it’s all part of growing and learning and maturing as a citizen scholar. But, it’s a process—it’s a journey. You don’t suddenly wake up to be flawlessly accurate every time,” he said.
The fall of the account
The message many students were surprised to see when they returned to Twitter on May 21 was, “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist.” For the WordPress website, a similar result: “This domain was parked.”
Their disappearance was met with mixed emotions; some relieved that the barrage was over, others disappointed that the incident didn’t end in a disciplinary case.
Although Roberts has no additional information behind their decision to take it down, he shared that the administration took preliminary legal steps.
“We issued cease and desist orders which were forwarded to the person responsible for the accounts and the orders appear to have influenced the decision to take [down] the sites,” Roberts said. “However, it would be imprudent of me to speculate on the various factors that may have informed the decision to close the sites.”
Roberts explained that, had the account holder been caught, disciplinary action might not have been on his agenda.
“My first reaction would be to sit down with the person and talk with them,” he explained. “I’d love to talk with them more about why they did this. How can I help them understand what we’re doing and hear out what they’re saying?”