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Prep School Haunted By Alum’s Death Works To Prevent Recurrence

May 22, 1995

EXETER, N.H. (AP) _ Phillips Exeter Academy is renowned for its successes, but a single failure has haunted the elite prep school for 10 years.

Edmund Perry was a poor boy from Harlem, sent to Phillips Exeter through a program that promises inner-city youths ``a better chance.″ Then, 10 days after graduation, he was killed in a fracas with a plainclothes police officer.

Though the circumstances of his death are still controversial, many say that Perry was caught in a no man’s land between the streets of Harlem and the ivy-cloaked affluence of Phillips Exeter.

``I see Eddie Perry as tragic,″ said Nadine Abraham-Thompson, the school’s director of multicultural affairs and associate dean of students. ``It’s a sign you are not changing the world when you educate someone.″

If you can’t change the world, you can help people adapt to it. And Abraham-Thompson has helped develop a program that aims to help kids like Perry handle the changes in their lives.

She has set up three support groups, one for black and Hispanic girls; one for black and Hispanic boys; and one for Asian students.

The groups meet weekly. Altogether, about 40 students participate. They talk about negotiating two worlds, black and white. They talk about racism on a white campus and in an even whiter community. (Exeter, nestled in an upscale seacoast town, has about 1,000 students, 93 of whom are black and Hispanic.)

There is talk about dating issues, including interracial dating, sex and relationships, about problems with parents, about their sense of isolation.

``Some of these kids come from multiproblem families. Their brother has been arrested, father has been laid off, their mother has a menial job and their sister got pregnant,″ Abraham-Thompson said. ``They struggle in silence. They’re not going to tell their white friends because they don’t want to live with that shame.″

Then there are black students from wealthy families _ too often, they say, others assume that they are from inner cities, poor and on scholarship.

Edmund Perry was the latter. His ticket to Exeter was punched by A Better Chance, a New York-based group that has been placing underprivileged kids in private high schools for 32 years. Among them: Deval Patrick, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, and singer Tracy Chapman.

The Perry case is an anomaly. ``I have 8,058 children who have graduated over the last 30 years; this is the only time anything even vaguely wrong happened,″ said Judith Griffin, president of A Better Chance.

Perry was 17 and bound for Stanford University on a full scholarship. But on June 12, 1985, he was caught in a streetfight that cost him his life.

The white policeman who shot him claimed Perry and Perry’s brother grabbed him from behind, beat him and tried to mug him.

Perry’s friends and family say the shooting was racial _ that the Perrys had committed no crime. A grand jury deemed the shooting self-defense, and a lawsuit filed by Perry’s mother against the city was settled out of court.

``We didn’t know precisely what was happening with Eddie Perry,″ said Abraham-Thompson.

Whatever it was, she is sure counseling would helped. ``Talking about it prepares you to go back a little more aware and confident,″ she said.

Jerome Thomas, who was sent by A Better Chance to another elite school _ the Holderness School in central New Hampshire _ said his hardest adjustment has been visiting his old neighborhood in the South Bronx and seeing friends.

``On one side, there’s Holderness. The other side is the South Bronx. I’m dead in the middle. There’s that constant tug,″ said Thomas, who has a full scholarship to Columbia University in the fall.

Thomas, 17, was once one of the gang, dabbling with drugs and often getting arrested. Now, when he returns, old friends call him ``preppy.″

``I’ve lost a lot of friends,″ he said.

Tom Hassan, director of admissions at Exeter, said most students admitted through A Better Chance over the past three decades have been successful, but they do face culture shock in the town.

Abraham-Thompson said minority students can be helped to adjust simply by getting rid of barriers they find in their mostly white surroundings.

At Exeter, that included setting up a beauty shop in town with hair stylists who know how to work with black hair.

``People couldn’t get their hair cut around here,″ Abraham-Thompson said. ``It provided a much-needed service for these students who for 20 years had to go into Boston to get their hair done.″

Abraham-Thompson says the school’s efforts have paid off.

``They’re getting into top-notch colleges and their grades are very good,″ she said. ``Providing good support and academics works together.″