30 Years After Going Coed, Deerfield Academy Still Grapples With Gender Equity

Jan 3, 2019

Deerfield Academy had an all-male student body until about three decades ago. Questions linger about how female students, and even faculty members, are treated at the private western Massachusetts boarding school. 

Kay Lazar of The Boston Globe has reported on the situation at Deerfield. We asked her what she heard from recent graduates.

Kay Lazar, Boston Globe: Recent graduates of Deerfield often spoke — both men and women — of a culture that just wasn't entirely fair, they felt, to women.

While there weren't actual assaults, etc., that they were pointing out — as there were, say, in "Me Too" stories from before, although there were some — it was more that they felt that they were not taken seriously, or treated as second-class citizens; not considered to be running for, say, school president.

Although this year is the first year that they finally were elected school president, after years and years and years.

So it was more a feeling of just not being taken terribly seriously, and being treated as sort of second-class.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: In the current lawsuit by a former longtime teacher, Sonja O'Donnell alleges she encountered difficulties with the school administration while standing up for female students. And the suit alleges Deerfield engaged in a "years-long pattern of sexual discrimination." What can you tell us about the suit, and O'Donnell's allegations?

It's quite a far-reaching suit. I think the amended complaint, which was filed in May 2018, runs something like 30 pages.

It alleges problems going back years, when a male teacher who was inappropriate and bullying, that apparently was not addressed appropriately; all the way to students' discipline hearings, where she alleges that the disciplines for male students, who engaged in activities that were similar to female students, were disciplined much more harshly.

And in fact, men who were accused of sexual misconduct would often get a quiet letter of reprimand in their file, but very little else, which seems to her to be very short-sighted.

And she said in an interview with us that she felt that a lot of the conduct, and a lot of the sort of culture that is problematic there, can be traced to how this type of behavior is not taken seriously.

What's been the reaction from Deerfield Academy's administration about all of this?

Obviously, Deerfield strongly has stated in our article, and in the statement they gave us, that they just categorically deny the allegations in the O'Donnell lawsuit, and that they emphatically are very for, you know, equal rights and non-discrimination, and that's what they teach.

And they say that some of the issues that we raised in our story — they have said, that we quoted them in the story — that they have really tried to step up efforts to really address some of the concerns about this kind of culture that does not perhaps treat men and women the same way.

Particularly in 2016 and 2017 they pointed to a number of courses, seminars, and in 2015 they say they opened a whole freshmen village to start housing freshmen together from the get go, so that they learned to be colleagues instead of separate and apart.

It was about 30 years ago when Deerfield went coed, and it was only after trustees decided against it on a couple of prior occasions. And that drew protests, that decision to go coed, from male students. Is the past at Deerfield still steering the present?

I believe it's still. There are vestiges of it still very much alive. Certainly judged by the reaction I've gotten from readers and former alums who have been writing to me, wanting to share their stories. Women who have graduated, and are still bothered by and troubled by stuff that has happened there. I do think the school is trying. I think it has some work to do.