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‘It’s not even Catholic anymore’: How parents turned on a Fla. Christian school for allegedly embracing ‘woke’ ideology

Kendall Tietz, DCNF

Parents raised millions for their beloved local Catholic school, but then the administration allegedly became so woke it ultimately violated its own mission, according to a lawsuit filed in June.

Anthony and Barbara Scarpo charged the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa, Florida, with “distancing itself from mainstream Catholicism, and embracing the new, politically correct, divisive and ‘woke’ culture.” Gender identity and openness to LGBTQ lifestyles, pro-abortion stances, white guilt and other “hot-button issues” replaced Catholic teaching, and students were allegedly taught to feel “guilt for not having been ‘woke’ sooner,” according to the lawsuit.

AHN runs an all-girls high school that prides itself on its Catholic curriculum and boasts alumnae such as former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who declined a request for comment.

The Scarpos claim that the school breached its contract for failing to provide their two children with a traditional Catholic education as well as “besmirching and harming” their reputations after they pledged $1.35 million to the school and helped raise an additional $9 million.

Although, not everyone at the school agrees with the Scarpos claims or believes AHN has lost its Catholic foundation.

In July, three former AHN alumni pushed back against the Scarpo’s claims in an open letter signed by over 500 former students of the Academy and other schools run by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in New York and Seattle, the Tampa Bay Times and WFLA reported. They believe what the Scarpos criticized at the Academy aren’t failures of the school, but examples 0f the Catholic faith in practice.

The letter’s authors and former students, Keri Kelly, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dolan and Allie Reichert quoted the Bible and said that while there is more room for improvement, they were proud of the school’s move toward more diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We would be angered and saddened to see our alma mater change the curriculum because of one family (who are no longer associated with the Academy),” the letter said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “We believe such teachings are not antithetical to the Catholic faith. On the contrary, we argue that these teachings are essential to development in the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith compels us to seek out practices that support and uplift all of our brothers and sisters.”

The Scarpo’s have seen the letter, which Anthony Scarpo said mischaracterized the goals of the lawsuit, the Tampa Bay Times reported. They want to be what he said is the “silent majority” of parents who are unhappy with the school’s shift in direction that started around 2018.

“When you begin to teach social justice without the umbrella of Catholicism and you leave God out of the discussion and leave anything that is Catholic out of the discussion, now all you have become is a social justice warrior,” Scarpo said. “You create terrible confusion among these young ladies. You create animosity between the students.”

The Scarpo’s older daughter graduated from AHN in May and their younger daughter was taken out of the school and enrolled at another non-religious school, due to the ongoing issues with AHN, according to the complaint. Adam Levine, the Scarpos lawyer, said the Scarpo’s tried to get the school to listen to their concerns, but when they wouldn’t even meet with them, they decided to take a legal route.

The Alleged Awokening Of A Traditional Catholic School

The school first fell into controversy when it hosted a lecture by Indian civil rights leader and activist Dr. Albertina Almeida, who spoke at a school-wide assembly for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students in January of 2018, according to Levine.

The Scarpos’ children came home crying following Almeida’s presentation where she “basically said to the kids, ‘you’re too white, you’re not diverse enough and you should be terribly guilty for the fact that your parents can pay to send you to this $23,000 a year school,” he said.

The Scarpo’s were concerned by Almeida’s presentation because it didn’t mention or have any relation to Catholicism, which they expressed privately to the headmaster at the time, Arthur Raimo. In his response, Raimo said he was under pressure from the Board of Trustees to improve diversity at the school, but in hindsight he might have restricted the presentation to the school’s juniors and seniors, according to the lawsuit.

Anthony Scarpo told Raimo in a letter that Almeida’s speech was a public relations disaster and one of his “blatant attempts to shame our girls,” but he ultimately offered to help the school recover.

Scarpo told Raimo that he made “numerous promises” to other parents that “progressive indoctrination would never happen (at AHN) again.”

Other parents echoed their concerns with the event and wrote to the school to express their feelings.

“If we wanted our daughter to be indoctrinated with the neo-Marxist feminist liberation theory Dr. Almeida espouses, (White Privilege 101), we would have gladly sent our daughter to… (any other) secular private school. But we felt the Catholic education at AHN to be exactly what our family was seeking,” one parent wrote the school condemning Almeida’s presentation, court documents show.

Despite Raimo’s reconsideration of the circumstances surrounding Almeida’s lecture, under his leadership the the school continued to guilt white students because of their skin color and economic status, instead of viewing racism and hatred “through the lens of a Catholic education,” the Scarpos alleged in their lawsuit.

Almeida did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

Catholic Education After The Death Of George Floyd

Following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, riots broke out across the country calling for racial equity. Raimo and other leaders used the moment to spark conversation surrounding race and diversity within the AHN community.

Raimo and Ernie Garateix, chairman of the AHN Board wrote the Academy community saying the school rejected the racism and hatred reflected in the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Floyd and Breonna Taylor and stated it was “imperative” to have uncomfortable conversations to “learn from them, reconcile, and grow,” according to the lawsuit.

Instead, the conversation was more focused around guilt due to skin color and economic status and Raimo and Garateix “chose to provide only one perspective – you as students should be guilty if you are white and your parents can afford our tuition – with or without financial aid,” according to the Scarpos.

Raimo and Garateix quoted the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in partnership with St. Mary’s University that “If we are serious about inclusive education in our Catholic schools then we must be concerned with the quest for equity for all who work within our community” and that the well being of the community requires the removal of “prejudice, discrimination and oppression,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that Raimo and Garateix failed to recognize how they harmed white students “by making them believe that they and their families are personally responsible” for the history’s harms and instead pushed the idea that being white equated to automatically causing these past harms.

An LGBTQ+ Billboard  In The School Sparked Backlash From Parents

Another issue that received a lot of negative attention from parents was a bulletin board that was on display at the entrance of the school, according to court documents. The board outlined “How To Be A Good Ally” to the LGTBQ+ community, but was criticized because it failed to explain the topic through the lens of Catholicism.

The board explained each of the letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym, encouraging students to say something if they see or hear “sexualization” towards the mentioned groups and told them they could serve as an ally to the community by spreading education sources on their social media accounts.

LGBTQ+ bulletin board on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

One part of the board said, “Lesbian (in case you didn’t know) is a woman who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation toward women. It is also important to note that nonbinary people can also be lesbians. They face ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ or ‘feeling the need from society to like men.’”

“L” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

Another part of the board switched to first person and said gay men feel they “have to overperform, outdo and live up to a higher expectation to prove our worth as gay people to the straight world around us.”

The board instructed students to “Stop saying you want a ‘gay guy best friend,’ gay people aren’t accessories” and explained that “Gay people face body issues, such as not being muscular enough. They often have unreasonable body images, causing eating disorders later in life.”

“G” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

The board posed questions telling students to “Ask yourself: ‘Do I have any misconceptions about dating a bisexual person?’ ‘How can I fix these misconceptions?’”

“B” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

One sign recommended students put their pronouns in their social media bio, said they should not ask a transgender person what their “dead name” is and instructed students in all caps to “RESPECT PRONOUNS.”

“T” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

In explaining the “+” of the LGBTQ+ acronym, it said it includes identities such as pansexual, asexual, demisexual, intersex, genderfluidity and nonbinary along with “links to help the LGBTQIA+ community and educate themselves appropriately.”

“Q” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

The board said the guidelines were not only for heterosexuals, but for white gay people also.

“+” poster on display at the Academy of the Holy Names. Courtesy of Adam Levine from the lawsuit exhibits. (Photo Credits: DCNF)

The Scarpos don’t object to being an ally to LGBTQ+ individuals, but believe it is necessary, as a Catholic institution, to also teach students about the Catholic church’s position, Levine said.

The lawsuit detailed several extensive letters written by parents condemning the billboard, along with some trustees and a religious leader who privately expressed dissatisfaction with the direction the school had taken.

One parent said the board “basically says there is no right or wrong way to identify yourself sexually, but you/me (the white, cisgender privileged person) must follow an absolute script when interacting with this community,” which she described as a disservice to the Catholic faith. “All we see is their sexuality, not the person and their potential as one of God’s amazing children on this earth.”

“The only heterosexual progressive equivalent would be to promote birth control, safe premarital sex, sex ed classes, etc.,” she said. “I doubt you would consider promoting the promiscuous heterosexual lifestyle on a bulletin board, would you? I have a gay guy best friend and a lesbian Junior in College I mentor. I do not believe that they are accessories (per the “G” on the bulletin board),” she added.

Another parent wrote, “My daughter cried to me yesterday about her senior year experience… the most heartbreaking part was when she said about her education, ‘what’s its even matter, it’s not even Catholic anymore.’”

The Scarpos’ Standing In Court

Emily Wise, a spokeswoman for the school told the DCNF that the academy can’t comment on the details of the pending case, but that the claims were “false and unsubstantiated.” She said the school’s “curriculum is, and always has been, based on Catholic values” and that they are prepared to defend themselves in court if necessary.

In a letter, the schools attorney Gregory Hearing called the Scarpo’s complaint “absurd” and a “publicity stunt.” He also accused Levine of using the lawsuit as an attempt to build his brand.

Levine, who said he thought the letter was private until it was leaked to the media, called the claim “patently ridiculous” because the Scarpos are “mostly retired” and “just trying to live comfortably and be left alone.”

The couple want their $1.35 million pledge to be determined null and void and the $240,000 that they have already gifted the school, as of 2018, returned.

Levine said dozens of other families have been complaining about the school and the Scarpos “felt called to represent the people without a voice and really try to say, ‘look if no one else will stand up, we’ll stand up and do it.’”

The Scarpo’s also claim that due to the “public persona” of the fundraising campaign, some parents became angry and blamed them for the Academy’s lapses.

“Who made you king to preside over our children and to teach and force your political and social views on them?” Anthony Scarpo wrote in a letter to Raimo.”Who among you is a trained clinical expert in the understanding, teaching and lecturing of these highly sensitive social justice, equity, racial and sexual issues of today? None of you! That’s the answer!”

In Hearing’s letter, he said the Scarpo’s claims were “grossly incorrect” and said there is no claim for education malpractice in Florida.

In response to Hearing’s claim that the lawsuit entangles the court in “excessively religious matters,” violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which separates church and state, Levine said he is not asking the state or the civil, secular courts to intervene in an ecclesiastical manner.

Levine plans to have an expert in canon law or Catholic education come in and explain what constitutes a Catholic education. For example, the Jesuits have a list of standards for a fundamentally efficient Catholic education, none of which are being met, he said.

Levine said he would not ask the court to intervene and determine whether something is Catholic enough, but simply wants the court to listen to what the expert says, because “If you advertise yourself as a Catholic school, you should deliver a Catholic education,” and if you don’t, it is a breach of contract.

The Florida Catholic Conference, which accredits AHN as a Catholic institution, is one of the parties being sued by the Scarpos. They declined to comment on the basis of a pending legal matter.

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