‘Empty words’: Students, parents frustrated by leadership’s communication at Mount St. Mary

The Oklahoman [Oklahoma City OK]

February 1, 2022

By Josh Dulaney

Nearly two-dozen students and their supporters at Mount St. Mary Catholic High School walked out of class Tuesday amid recently publicized allegations of sexual misconduct at the private school and complaints from some parents and alumni that administrators have been vague in their response and lacking in a detailed admission of institutional failures. 

The scandal has unfolded publicly since former Principal Talita DeNegri resigned in late December after an independent investigation revealed the school had failed to take action “consistent with its core beliefs and values” regarding allegations of sexual harassment and assault of a student, according to letters sent to donors, families and alumni by Board of Trustees Chairman Daniel Carsey.

More alleged victims spoke to The Oklahoman for a Jan. 23 article detailing their accusations, which include a male student masturbating in front of a female student, a female student forcibly moved into a stairwell where she was kissed and groped against her will, and a sexual assault on a school bus returning from a game.  

The alleged victims, including some who still attend Mount St. Mary, accuse school leaders of ignoring their complaints and offering hollow apologies. 

“I think empty words are the same as silence and so I really don’t feel like much has been said at all,” one current student and alleged victim told The Oklahoman. “Nothing’s been acknowledged. Everybody’s still confused.”

More:Mount St. Mary parents demand answers following reports of sexual assault at school

In a recent letter to administrators, a group of parents said they supported a walkout. 

Among supporters at Tuesday’s walkout was Denis Rischard, a parent whose family ties to Mount St. Mary go back several generations. 

Rischard told The Oklahoman school leadership needs to acknowledge there were other administrators who failed to properly handle and report allegations of abuse.

“In order for there to be true reconciliation there has to be admission, owning it,” Rischard said. “There has to be sincere apology, contrition. Then there has to be true amendment, change. Well, the Mount hasn’t acknowledged any wrong by anybody else. In fact, as far as we know, the same people who were involved with the violations of our students’ dignity are still at the school.”

Carsey told The Oklahoman students would not be punished for walking out. He declined to comment further for this story citing a desire not to interfere with the independent investigation and student privacy concerns. 

“The mount and its community continue to stand by the victims and will support their willingness to engage in a peaceful demonstration on our campus,” Carsey told The Oklahoman. 

Double-talk or moving forward?

A letter in early January signed by more than 140 alumni and others sent to the school board, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Mercy Education System of the Americas expressed  “dismay and frustrations” with Carsey’s initial public response to the sexual abuse allegations, and demanded:

“An immediate and stark correction to the narrative heretofore employed by the purported spokespeople for The Mount in the wake of what appear to be serious failures by the administration’s – and by extension your – leadership.”

Later, a Jan. 28 letter signed by parents representing more than a dozen families and sent to Carsey and interim Principal Diane Floyd said:

“The recent media accounts of the Mount administration’s sexual assault scandal and your correspondence addressing the matter have caused we parents and guardians of current MSM students to be alarmed at your lack of transparency concerning the findings of the Board’s investigation and your reluctance to hold accountable the remaining perpetrators among the Mount’s administration and staff.” 

More:Mount St. Mary High School students plan walkout to protest alleged culture of sexual abuse

In a response letter signed by Floyd and Carsey — and obtained by The Oklahoman — the top officials wrote that the school cannot make the investigation reports public because such a move would raise privacy concerns for alleged victims, minors, parents and school personnel. 

The letter also alluded to additional victims beyond those with direct ties to the parent letter.

“Many of the victims and witnesses — including many that are outside of your group — expressed a strong desire to maintain anonymity to the fullest extent possible,” the letter said. 

Floyd did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

“They really seem to be hiding behind what would either appear to be legal means or legal reasons or double-talk, saying we can’t admit anything because we’d divulge identities of witnesses or victims,” Rischard said. “Well no one is asking for disclosure of things that should be kept private. 

“If one could imagine being a student, let alone a survivor, who is in the school and doesn’t know who did what still,” Rischard said. “The Mount has known for two months who did what.” 

The letter went on to say the new administration and school board “were troubled by the investigation findings and certainly and sincerely apologize to the victims for what they are enduring.”

According to the letter, Floyd is reviewing the findings of the independent investigation and will “determine what appropriate personnel actions to take.”

‘We were all children’:What we know about allegations of sexual abuse of students at Mount St. Mary

The letter says the school stands behind the victims and has created “Moving the Mission Forward” goals to better ensure students have a safer place and that clear protocols are put in place to receive, investigate and appropriately respond to sexual harassment and assault.

According to the school’s website, administration is using the expertise of legal professionals, law enforcement, social services and educational professionals to create a safer school community. 

Initiatives include preventing and responding to sexual harassment through training, updating policies and procedures, providing counseling and additional support to current and former students involved in the recent investigation, and the formation of a task force to engage community members in a review of school culture.

Among some students there is hope for healing. 

One alleged survivor, who asked not to be named for this story, told The Oklahoman students would not have walked out “if we didn’t have faith the Mount couldn’t change for the better.”

Searching for leadership 

DeNegri is a former Oklahoma teacher of the year who served 19 years as principal at Mount St. Mary. 

The school has formed a search committee for a new principal, according to a Jan. 30 letter to the school community from Paige Williams Shepherd, a member of the school board.

After the committee makes its selection, approval will go through the trustees board, as well as the school’s co-sponsors — The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City —  for final approval.

The goal is to select the next principal in April, with the intended start date of July 1. 

Williams Shepherd also wrote that the board voted in January to change the structure of Mount St. Mary from a president/principal — or one-person top leader role in which DeNegri served — to a two-person model with a principal and president. 

Under the new model, the president will be the face of the school for the public and lead fundraising efforts, while the principal oversees academics and promotes growth and development among faculty. 

“There must be a high level of trust between the President and the Principal,” Williams Shepherd wrote. “Both individuals must have a shared awareness of the distinct duties each is charged to perform. The working relationship is helped when the President provides direction and support to the Principal.”