In the past two weeks, Year 12 student John Paul Romano should have been completing assignments and preparing for exam week, which begins tomorrow.
Instead, the 17-year-old Canberran – a cathedral acolyte and promising young leader – finds himself in a kind of academic no man’s land, having been suspended indefinitely by St Edmund’s College after protesting its decision to discard its immediate past crest and uniform.
A little over a week ago, John Paul was allegedly told by the school that it was “too dangerous” to allow him to continue frequenting school premises.
The student had earlier established a Facebook page for alumni to voice their displeasure and had convened a protest event over the changes for the following Friday.
The Canberra Times broke the story on 1 June, reporting that many people it had spoken to were unhappy about the alleged-development of an autocratic and non-consultative environment of decision making at the school.
In a letter to John Paul’s father, well-known Canberra lawyer Peter Romano, St Edmund’s said that it had suspended John Paul for bringing the school into “disrepute,” although it did not say how.
The story has since garnered media attention from as far afield as the United States, largely centring around the issue of freedom of expression.
“I hadn’t expected the school to respond in the way that they have,” John Paul told The Catholic Weekly.
“What we did has done exactly what we wanted it to do – to start a conversation. It was never about standing outside school with protests and signs. It was about getting people talking.”
He said that the school crest and uniform had been of great importance to scores of families and students at the school, and that many families – including his own – had sent their sons to St Edmund’s because of its heritage and their past positive experiences.
“St Edmund’s is a school where a lot of boys will have a father, or an uncle or a brother who have attended the college.
“We are talking about things (elements of the school’s heritage), many of which have been there since the school opened in 1954.
“The tie that I wore, for example, is the same tie that my father wore at the school in the 1980s. It’s a source of great pride for us.”
The school produced a video heralding the change to its crest as a “bold and confident step forward”.
Alumni reaction on Facebook to the new crest has generally been scathing. A handful of commenters voiced support for the change, with one writing that they were necessary to avoid stagnation and decline at the school.
John Paul said he thought changing the crest and uniform – particularly without consultation – was wrong-headed, and that focus should instead be given to improving the school’s academic performance and to generating prestige by innovating around sustainability.
(The Canberra Times reported that the December edition of the school magazine said that the “crest refresh” had involved “extensive research and community engagement,” something which critics disputed.)
John Paul has served as an acolyte at St Christopher’s Cathedral since 2011, frequently for His Grace, the Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Archbishop Christopher Prowse. He says he does not know if Archbishop Prowse is aware of the matter (the Archbishop is presently overseas).
St Edmund’s is a “non-systemic” or non-diocesan school operated under the auspices of Edmund Rice Education Australia. (St Edmund’s bade farewell to any Christian Brother presence at the school late last year, with the departure of Br Matt McKeon CFC.)
In a 1 June post on its official Facebook page, school principal Daniel Lawler said the school would “not be discussing (John Paul’s) personal situation publicly, even to correct misstatements of fact by others.” (See below for the full text of the post.)
John Paul said he is still hopeful of a productive meeting with the school’s management.
His answer to the question of what the ongoing episode had likely done to his exam prospects was muted.
“This coming week – from tomorrow – is exam week. I’ve missed all the revision for examinations. It’s probably not going to be beneficial.”
Full text of the St Edmund’s College 1 June Facebook post:
NEWS REPORTS OF STUDENT’S SUSPENSION
I am aware of the widespread media coverage today of the suspension of a student from our school.
We will not be discussing his personal situation publicly, even to correct misstatements of fact by others.
Our overriding concern is for the well being of all our boys, including the student who has been suspended.
I urge the local news media, and individuals commenting online, to remember that the person concerned in this matter is a seventeen year old school boy.
Please, speak and act responsibly.
Our school always permits a respectful and open dialogue and encourages the expression of opinion; that will continue.