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White headmaster forced Black student, 11, to kneel while apologizing, mom says: ‘This was a racist act’

A White headmaster at a Catholic school in Long Island forced a Black sixth-grader to kneel while apologizing to a teacher, the boy's mother said. (Gobalstock/iStock)

Trisha Paul had just picked up her 11-year-old son, Trayson, from his Catholic school in Long Island last month when he shared unsettling news.

Earlier that day, the school’s White headmaster had ordered Trayson, who is Black, to apologize to a teacher — while kneeling on the ground.

When Paul, 32, confronted headmaster John Holian of St. Martin de Porres Marianist School days later, Paul told The Washington Post, Holian admitted his role in the incident, and added that he’d been inspired by a Nigerian father who did the same to his son — a punishment Holian allegedly referred to as the “African and the Nigerian way.”

“When he finished telling this story, I was just on the phone baffled,” said Paul, who is Haitian American. “My child is not Nigerian. We don’t share the same cultures or beliefs. You’re assuming that because my child is Black that he must kneel down as well.”

Holian has since been placed on a leave of absence as the school investigates the incident, according to an email the school’s acting headmaster, James Conway, sent to parents last week.

“I want to assure you that St. Martin’s neither condones nor accepts the actions of our headmaster,” Conway wrote in the email. “The incident does not reflect our long, established values or the established protocols regarding student related issues.”

Paul said she is horrified that her son, a sixth-grader, was singled out for a special punishment because he is Black.

“This was a racist act,” Paul said. “In other schools when they are disciplined, it’s detention, it’s extra homework, there are other ways to discipline a child. But degrading a child, humiliating them off the basis of generalizing him because he’s just a Black boy, makes no sense.”

Holian didn’t immediately respond to a message from The Post late on Sunday.

The school in Uniondale, a Long Island suburb, has about 400 students. Paul, a hospital administrator who pays nearly $15,000 a year in tuition to St. Martin’s, enrolled her son last October because she wanted a more challenging curriculum.

Her son is bubbly and extroverted, she said, so she could tell something was off as soon as she picked him up on Feb. 25.

Trayson told her that he began working on an assignment ahead of time while the class was still reading a text. When the teacher found out, Paul said, she ripped his worksheet in front of the class and told him he had failed to follow instructions. Then she took him to Holian’s office, where he allegedly ordered him to kneel and apologize.

Paul said she was too shaken about the incident to confront the school immediately, but when Holian called on March 1 to discuss First Communion plans, she asked him what had happened.

“He admitted that he asked him to kneel down,” Paul said. “He didn’t acknowledge what happened was wrong or how I felt. … He wasn’t remorseful or apologetic at all.”

On March 4, Paul met with Holian in his office. The headmaster, according to Paul, repeated the story about the Nigerian parent, adding that “he felt that if he apologized standing up it wouldn’t have been genuine.”

Paul was not convinced by Holian’s arguments. “This incident only occurred because my son is Black,” Paul said.

The incident has had a lasting effect on her son, Paul said. At first, he repeatedly asked questions like, “Why me?” and “Why do some people treat me differently because I’m Black?” but then became reserved and quiet. In early March, she placed him on remote learning instead of sending him back to class.

“He’s just hurt and humiliated,” Paul said.

On Friday, the school announced Holian had been placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation and condemned his actions.

“The manner in which he disciplined a St. Martin’s student was not consistent with the policies and philosophy of St. Martin’s,” Conway wrote in the email.

Paul has hired an attorney and is unsure whether her son will return to school. She is demanding the headmaster step down and the school implements racial sensitivity courses for its staff.

“As much as an apology would be great, I don’t think it would erase anything of the impact it’s had on my child,” she said.