LITTLE ITALY — St. Ignatius College Prep is one of Chicago’s most prestigious private high schools, but during Reyna Estrada’s freshman year, she considered leaving.
Estrada, now a 22-year-old alumna, said she witnessed numerous instances of racial discrimination among faculty and students during her time at St. Ignatius, 1076 W. Roosevelt Road. She remembers being asked by students to stop speaking “Mexican” and was asked if she watched “Dora the Explorer” to learn English.
The problems didn’t stop at race, Estrada said. When she came out as gay during her freshman year, she said friends told her being gay was “wrong” and she “had to abide by Catholic teachings” if she was going to be at a Catholic school like St. Ignatius. One teacher told her being gay shouldn’t be “endorsed,” Estrada said.
“It was rough,” said Estrada, who graduated in 2015.
She wasn’t alone.
A new Instagram page shares the accounts of current and former students who say they experienced racism and other forms of bigotry at the Jesuit high school. The Instagram account, @bipocatignatius, allows Black, Indigenous and people of color at the school to anonymously share stories.
Former students have written about white students throwing grapes at them because they were Black, teachers telling white students to use the “n-word” while reading in class and administrators doing nothing when white students had a Black student “hauled off … for a mock lynching” during a model United Nations conference, among other allegations.
In a statement, St. Ignatius leaders called the accounts posted to Instagram “heartbreaking.”
“The fact that virtually all of these experiences were unknown to us means that we need to do a better job of encouraging students who encounter racism to come forward to us so it can be addressed, as some have done,” school leaders said in a statement.
Alumni and students of color interviewed by Block Club said their experiences at St. Ignatius mirrored accounts shared on Instagram.
Students, the majority of whom asked to remain anonymous, said they often didn’t realize the severity of their experiences until years later. They were hesitant to talk to faculty or leaders at the school, some said. Even now, many fear harassment from classmates.
“People will be subtly racist and you just can’t really speak up about it because you’re too afraid,” one alumna said.
This is not the first time the high school has faced allegations of racism. In 2016, Black students held protests and told the school’s administrators they regularly experienced racism on campus from teachers and students. At the time, school leaders promised change — but current students say that hasn’t happened.
The Instagram account and criticism from alumni comes at a time when schools across Chicago are grappling with accusations of racism. A similar Instagram account, Latin Survivors, has shared stories of racism at Latin School of Chicago, another prominent private school.
Organizers of the @bipocatignatius account, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said they were motivated to create the account to get administrators’ attention and to spur change at the school.
“As [Black, Indigenous and People Of Color], we were fully aware of some of the injustices that occur at Ignatius and we believed that in creating @bipocatignatius, we would be able to give a voice to the BIPOC students and alumni,” the account creators told Block Club over email.
St. Ignatius’ spokesman did not respond to requests for demographics of the school’s student population or how the school plans to address the reports of racism. The spokesman said they are looking into the anonymous claims.
‘I Had To … Change A Lot’
On the Instagram account, there are allegations of racism and harassment in nearly all facets of student life at Ignatius.
A current student who is Black said the environment — which she describes as “predominantly white and conservative” — was a complete shift from her liberal, social justice-centered education at St. Sabina Academy in Auburn Gresham.
“I had to learn a lot and change a lot and in my time there,” she said.
In an English class, a teacher tried to force a white classmate to say the n-word, which appeared in a book the class was reading, the student said.
“He would ask me in the middle of class, ‘How does it feel to be followed through a store when you’re with your white friends?’ and things like that, and it was really awkward,” the student said.
Just a few months ago, the student said, her club needed approval from the school administration before releasing a letter in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But by the time the administrators finished with revisions, the letter was nothing like the one the students submitted.
“We couldn’t say, ‘Black lives matter.’ We couldn’t say that the school wasn’t doing anything,” the student said. “In many ways, they try to water everything that we do down or shut us down, just to make other people comfortable.”
One student who graduated in 2019 said when she was a freshman, a Black student group wrote a letter to shed light on racism at St. Ignatius. A white student parodied the letter, mocking the writers and calling them “banana-a-day people.”
The experience was a preview of what was to come at the school, the alumna said.
Another student with good grades and a full slate of extracurriculars said the school counselor did not encourage her to apply to a wide variety of colleges, instead suggesting just one school: a historically Black college and university.
She said it was particularly worrisome this behavior was perpetuated at a Jesuit religious school whose “community strives to use God’s gift to promote social justice for the greater glory of God.”
“Specifically because it’s a Catholic institution, I think that’s the most hurtful part of it. People talk about the ‘Gospel is love’ all the time we take religion courses,” she said. “There’s no way you can uphold those values if you continue to allow something like that to go on under your nose.”
‘I Really Don’t Think She Was That Sorry’
St. Ignatius’ website says students should be religious, loving, open to growth, intellectually competent — and “committed to doing justice.”
But some classmates at St. Ignatius were racist and homophobic, alumni said.
“St. Ignatius as an institution has this prestigious reputation throughout the city of Chicago … . But a lot of the students who came from marginalized communities, I can safely say they did not have a great time coming in there,” Estrada said.
Another alumna who graduated in 2017 said a white student told her they should build a wall around her because she is Mexican.
She burst into tears, but was met with apathy, she said.
“While I was recounting why it was so offensive to me and what my family means to me and why that’s so insulting to not me but how I identify as a whole … I started crying because I was just so emotional about it,” the alumna said. “I really don’t think she was that sorry about it.”
The same alumna said she saw a white freshman yelling at a Latina woman working in the cafeteria, with the freshman telling the woman she wasn’t preparing her meal fast enough.
‘You Need To Make That Change’
A 2019 alumna who is Black said the prestigious school opened doors for her.
“I like to say that I was grateful for the overall academic experience,” the former student said. “I think that it was something that really pushed me and that obviously gave me a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as retreats and trips.”
But she is still troubled by reading the parody letter on social media that alluded to the school’s Black students being “monkeys.” That stayed with her after graduation.
In a new online petition, current and former students are demanding the school implement a plan to address bigotry. The plan, which is available online, calls on St. Ignatius to present a “diverse curriculum and faculty,” punish perpetrators of discrimination and ensure teachers and administrations participate in a bi-monthly seminar on anti-discrimination, among other steps.
The petition has received more than 1,200 signatures.
“We are tired of the lack of action that Ignatius has demonstrated regarding the welfare of minority students,” petition organizers wrote online. “From anti-Semitism, racism, ignorance and classism, there is a deeply embedded culture of anti tolerance at Ignatius and we are calling the administration to action.”
Estrada said the school needs more diversity among its faculty and administration and sensitivity training for all students.
A support system through the counseling department is needed for students of color or those of marginalized identities, too, Estrada said.
But, ultimately, St. Ignatius has to “admit their shortcomings,” Estrada said.
“I don’t want them to keep hiding under the guise that they are doing everything they can, because we all know they’re not,” Estrada said. “It’s frustrating to see this institution be held accountable time and time again and it’s the same response and nothing gets done.”
Another alumna said these issues have been brought up to the administration before, and now is the time to act on them.
“…Whether you make that change because you feel like you have no other choice or you’re actively trying to fight for the equality of people — you need to make that change,” she said.
Mauricio Peña contributed to this story.
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