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Buying Innocence And A’s: Elitism At My Prep School

College preparatory schools—usually private—are often viewed as pretentious with their ridiculous tuition and fancy terms, such as “higher education.” As lavish as these environments might seem, the rules are very lenient. (Not when it comes to skirt length. No, administrators are adamant about girls’ dress code.) Rather, with the high education and tuition comes the obscenely high behavioral tolerance.

Word gets around fast in a class of forty-five. I had just finished a biology test when I heard that one of my peers had pulled the trigger while aiming a nail-gun directly into a teacher’s ear. Lucky for her, she only received permanent hearing damage. Lucky for her, he had forgotten to load the gun. I was shocked, to say the least, especially when I found out he’d be returning the next day. He strolled in bragging that he received live tutoring over the phone and no absent assignments. His friends laughed as he recalled taunting the teacher before holding the gun up. Since the incident, no one has said a word about it, especially not staff. He is still allowed in the shop classroom.

That event is not the first time my school has been too lax with its discipline. During gym class, students were unsupervised in the weight room and petty insults stirred up a fight. Next thing I know, two students stumble out onto the basketball court, one with a wound on his leg and the other in tears. One of the students involved in the fight had used a leather weight-lifting belt to whip them. One was lucky not to require stitches for his injury. To all of our surprise, the attacker was not expelled. After a three-day suspension, he was to return. It was like he had never assaulted another student on school campus.

Physical assault wasn’t punishable, and neither was sexual assault. A friend met with the headmaster to discuss experiences she’d had with a boy in our class. I had similar experiences. She told him how the boy grabbed her inappropriately during class, how he’d grab her in the halls. The headmaster listened with open ears as she described the horrific way the boy would speak to her as he blackmailed and degraded her. The headmaster told her she was listened to and her matters would be taken seriously, but there was no punishment received. A quick meeting occurred, but there were no consequences for those unspeakable actions. No girls ever spoke about it, but we all knew there was a problem there.

In light of the exploding #MeToo movement, people often ask sexual assault victims why they didn’t report, or why nothing happened in their case. Victims at my school would say that they did report—that their accusations were just silenced by a check.

These incidents didn’t leave me wondering what it would take for a student to get expelled—I already knew—but rather why they weren’t getting expelled.

Then the reason why became clear: money. Parents drive Range Rovers in the carpool line and are willing to fund the science program in order to clear their child’s name. No one is ever surprised when a guilty student walks out un-scathed, sentenced to a typical one-day suspension or less. The students avoiding punishments have donated the most to the school fund.

The richer students cannot afford to have their education and reputation soiled by their offenses, but the poor students apparently can. Students who are on scholarships are often given minimal respect and lenience, unlike their wealthier trouble-making classmates. The students who do not donate to the fund are often given heftier punishments without consideration.

A classmate of mine was given a two-day suspension for asking another student a question while a test was out. There was no proof he was cheating, but he was automatically punished and given a zero for his quiz and missing assignments while he was gone. That is a harsher punishment than someone who attempted to shoot a teacher in the head. There was proof of an assault in that situation, but he was given special tutoring, not to mention astonishing grace. The difference is that his family does not give extra money to the school so he is looked down upon, while the other is a top donator and well-loved by the headmaster because of that.

It seems there is a prevalent system of elitism in my school.

The rich have essentially rewritten the handbook so it’s in their favor. No matter how much wrong they do, they will always escape punishment. They are the authority in this situation, controlling the staff like a puppet-master—just substitute strings for dollar bills.

The power of money goes beyond disciplinary issues. A couple thousand dollars will do a lot for a child’s college application and there’s a price tag on everything: varsity cheer captain, homecoming queen, student government and even academic leader.

Buying good grades might come as a shock, as academics are harder to fake, but where there’s money, there’s a way. My school has a program strictly for students with diagnosed learning disabilities, or so it says. Many students pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month to receive extra help (which includes extra time on standardized tests) without diagnosed learning disabilities. Students who cannot afford this program will typically not receive extra help or accommodations and will often suffer because of it, all while students who can afford but don’t need it are merely gliding by. Some of the students receiving unfair advantages are on the path to becoming valedictorian. The rich continue to control staff and academics while poorer and less influential students barely are getting by and are treated inferiorly.

Solutions are easy to throw around, but the execution of these ideas is seemingly impossible. They require a doctor’s note for assistance—but here is the problem: the students’ parents are most likely high paying doctors or are willing to go to any lengths to obtain proof of a disability, even if there is none. There will always be a loophole for the people who can either pay their way out or become the wealthy authority instead.

The parents do not care, even if they know their child is in the wrong. If they can fix it silently, they will. If the issue will not go away quietly, then they will either open their wallets or fight tooth-and-nail until no one speaks of it again. They will not hesitate to put poorly-paid staff and parents in “their places,” often threatening their job and reputation while berating their status.

And it’s certainly not like students are objecting to these elitist structures. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to mocking and harming the poor.

Entitlement and materialism are the building blocks for these kids starting in elementary school. Six year-olds are already money-hungry and vicious. They have teased each other based on clothing, or the lack thereof, house size and their parents’ job occupation since pre-k. Children are already learning to value money and attack those who lack wealth early on in life. Materialism might be a common occurrence across all schools and ages, but not in this absurd way. Kids are ostracized when they wear cheap clothes and off-brand sneakers to the point where they transfer schools. Poor parents are looked down upon by students, other parents and administration. The wealthy kids will go out of their way to separate themselves from the rest, pushing anyone below their class out of their away.

It seems there are few ways to prevent elitism in an environment centered around wealth. In most cases, it’s very hard to stop parents from pushing their way into matters, but it seems especially difficult to prevent bribery and persuasion in a place that has been founded on entitlement.

These children are being taught that money will allow them to rise to the top. They begin to band together, almost forming their own society, stepping on anyone below them. That is the basic idea of elitism: the rich—elite–being on top and controlling everyone below them. Adults allow this to happen, instilling it in the children, allowing the wealthy to get by unharmed while the poor are stepped on. The wealthy become authority figures—parents deciding who gets expelled and who is top of the class and administrators with heavy pockets ignoring injustice for their own benefit. It’s the kids on the playground telling their classmate who’s on a scholarship that he can’t swing with them because he can’t afford Nikes. The poor are powerless, holding their breath constantly in fear that they might be punished horribly without cause. 

I can admit I am among the privileged. I do not have the same worries as a student on a scholarship, or many others, but I also cannot afford to pay my way through. I am not listened to or defended so greatly. I know that if I had pulled that triggered or groped another student I would not be walking through the doors the next day. The problem doesn’t lie in people like me—people who openly question and call attention to this social structure. The problem stems from people who misuse their privilege. It stems from people who are unwilling to admit these values exist and are practiced in our school. They are just as responsible for upholding those concepts.

There might be few ways to prevent elitism in such a small and money-centered community, but admitting it’s there and exposing it is a first step to its end.

This has been a heavily-discussed controversial topic for a while now among students, parents, teachers and locals. Our school is known for corruption and misbehavior, along with the mistreatment of lower-class students. Whether it’s said or not, the dangerous and nearly fatal effects of elitism in a school and community are obvious and harmful. In these situations, money seemingly buys innocence and power among willing administrators.

Photo: Mary Dodys

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