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An Exceptional School

By Coby Y. Garcia, Contributing Opinion Writer

In the past 24 years, Roncalli High School gave out more than two million canned food items for the needy. The Class of 2021 performed more than 40,000 hours of public service. Last year was Roncalli’s first-ever “R Family day” celebrating the diversity of Roncalli students, with 19 percent of students displaying their diverse backgrounds. Roncalli participates in the Indiana Choice Scholarship which allows primarily low-income families to choose what school their children attend; this scholarship allowed my family to attend Roncalli free of cost when tuition is more than $10,000.

This reputation of exceptional performance is accompanied by an equally exceptional history. A yearbook from 1987 tells of a general named “Ronnie Rebel” holding Confederate battle flags — or as the school once called them, “rebel flags.” The Rebels, and their implied ties to the Confederacy, continued to represent our school for several decades. However, researching Roncalli’s extraordinary history doesn’t require digging through an archive — just a quick Google search.

I was a freshman in high school when Roncalli fired two gay counselors — Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey — after finding out about their long-term marriages. In Starkey’s lawsuit, she provided evidence of a hostile environment towards gay students and faculty members. Student Dominic Conover, founder of Shelly’s Voice Advocacy Group, was told he would be unable to receive his diploma if he continued to use his voice to support Fitzgerald; Fitzgerald’s father was similarly prevented from volunteering at the school due to his support for Fitzgerald. Even as another local Catholic high school refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, a teacher in a same-sex marriage, Roncalli held strong to the firings. Roncalli also allegedly threatened suspension to those vocalizing support for the BGLTQ community, silenced gay students and even allegedly demanded additional tuition payments from vocal students.

In my sophomore year, the Roncalli High School principal used the N-word at an all-school assembly. All Roncalli students, Roncalli teachers, and eventually, Roncalli families heard the principal say the N-word. Even more shocking was when former Roncalli teacher and coach, Jerre McManama Jr. responded to the scandal with: “Say the word. We’re not walking on eggshells here.”

Junior year was marked by an incident of football players hazing a student with Down syndrome, forcing them to lick someone’s nipple. What did the players do the following day? Play football. That was followed by a teacher (previously honored with a football field named after him) allegedly assaulting a student in the cafeteria.

In my senior year, Roncalli changed its nickname from “Rebels” to “Royals” due to the ties that Roncalli had to the Confederacy. The name was met with mixed reviews. Reverend Robert J. Robeson, Interim President of Roncalli in 2021, stated in Roncalli’s winter magazine: “[M]any … do not understand the nickname and see it as a symbol of the Confederacy and associate it with slavery and oppression.” He acknowledged that “Rebels carries with it some deep and hurtful associations for a great many people in our society — regardless of how we understand it.” He stated that changing the name would make others feel closer to Roncalli. In addition to this important change to Roncalli’s identity, that year, Roncalli demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity within Indianapolis’ diverse community, after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

A year after my time at Roncalli, a photo posted on the “roncallirowdies” Instagram depicted several Roncalli students next to signs of the letter K. Some, unaware of a pre-existing tradition in baseball in which strikes are counted using “K”s, labeled the photo as a joke to create controversy. As a Roncalli student stated, “now it looks like a huge kkk rally instead of a high school softball game … it’s a wall of white students and k’s.” Roncallirowdies explained that the post was simply an expression of a pre-existing tradition and didn’t intend, or believe, that the post was connected to the KKK. A current sophomore at Roncalli stated that “if any other school or team did this … no one would care” — implying that Roncalli's identity is the reason people reacted negatively.

The issue isn’t with the tradition, just as the word “Rebel” in itself isn’t a word that has been limited in usage (unlike other words used by the former principal of Roncalli). Roncalli, much like Harvard, has an exceptional history, tainted with imprints of the Confederacy, discrimination, and racism. When our school holds up “K”s, much of the Roncalli community, primarily underrepresented minorities, doesn’t see a tradition.

To acknowledge our complex history and the positive changes that Roncalli has made despite it, Roncalli — just like Harvard — must firmly establish that, because it is exceptional, some traditions and practices must be discontinued or modified. Roncalli’s greatest challenge is to hear the voices that it has silenced throughout its history, including the increasing number of students of different racial, sexual, and economic backgrounds. Listen to us when all we see is “KKK — KKK — KKK.”

Coby Y. Garcia ’25 lives in Grays Hall.

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