A New York mother is calling for the resignation of a white headmaster who she says told her 11-year-old son to kneel while apologizing for not following instructions, later explaining that it was "the African way."
Trisha Paul told NBC News that she enrolled her two children at St. Martin de Porres Marianist school in Uniondale, on New York's Long Island, because it has a reputation for providing an exceptional Roman Catholic education.
Paul, a hospital administrator, said she pays $15,000 in annual tuition.
Late last month, her son, Trayson, an honor roll student, had finished an assignment early and started another assignment, Paul said. Trayson's teacher reacted by ripping up his paper and bringing him to headmaster John Holian's office for failing to follow instructions, according to Paul.
The headmaster punished Trayson by telling him to say sorry, while on his knees, Paul said.
Paul approached the headmaster about the incident this month, first on the phone and then in an in-person meeting, she said.
She said she asked Holian why her son was made to kneel.
He told her that he had learned the practice from a Nigerian father at the school, who told him it was the "African way" of apologizing, Paul said.
"Once he mentioned the story, I realized that maybe he’s generalizing because my son is Black and maybe that’s what he thought the discipline should have been for that behavior, because, simply because my child was Black," Paul told NBC New York.
No other students had been disciplined that way, Paul said Holian told her.
He later said he was sorry that she was upset and said he sometimes uses the practice with his own sons, Paul said.
Paul was not satisfied with the half-hearted apology, and pulled her children out of in-person classes at the school and hired an attorney, she said. She added that she's not sure she will re-enroll her kids at St. Martin de Porres Marianist next school year.
"He’s hurt, he’s humiliated, he feels degraded," Paul told NBC New York about her son. "He did cry and he was sad. He just stated that, 'Why did it happen to me? Why was it necessary for me to kneel?'"
"I didn’t have any answers, I just stated that it wasn’t his fault that this happened to him," Paul said.
"He’s been completely quiet, not himself, just trying to take it all in," Paul told NBC News.
"Most of the time, he doesn’t want to discuss it. His interactions with family members, relatives, friends, anyone around him has changed," Paul said, adding that she will be sending Trayson to therapy.
Holian did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment. When reached by the Daily News, he would not comment on the incident specifically but said “we love our students here,” adding that the “vast majority” are students of color.
After the Daily News, which first reported on the incident, asked St. Martin de Porres Marianist for a statement in the course of their reporting, the school sent an email to parents saying Holian was on a leave of absence while the school investigated the incident.
The school shared the email with NBC News in response to a request for comment.
"The manner in which he disciplined a St. Martin’s student was not consistent with the policies and philosophy of St. Martin’s," said the email. "St. Martin’s neither condones nor accepts the actions of our headmaster. The incident does not reflect our long, established values or the established protocols regarding student related issues."
"We have launched an internal review of the incident and restated in the clearest terms what is the established and approved practice for student-faculty interaction," the email said.
Paul said she feels Holian should step down and is calling for the staff to take a course on racial and cultural sensitivities.
"If there are other students who have experienced racial discrimination, I hope they would step forward and speak out because a change must be made," Paul said.