To the Members of the South Orange–Maplewood School District Board of Education:
I attended your meeting on June 13, 2019, in which the Board of Education (BOE) declined to reverse the non-renewal for Maplewood Middle School science teacher Debra Hwang. I am writing this letter because I was appalled by the disrespect most of the BOE members showed toward the children of our community as well as the hypocrisy and lack of moral leadership on display.
We are a community that prides itself on teaching children to speak out when they see an injustice and to fight against the unfair treatment of individuals. We tell our children it is important to search out the truth and provide as much transparency as possible when explaining our behaviors and decisions. On June 13, most of the members of the BOE showed total disregard for all of those values. Instead, they demonstrated their belief that the voices of our community do not matter when BOE members prohibited many of the children and parents who attended the meeting from speaking on behalf of Ms. Hwang before the BOE took a show of hands to see if there was support to overturn the non-renewal. (I would like to acknowledge that members Johanna Wright and Shannon Cuttle seemed to want to permit further attention and discussion relating to Ms. Hwang’s situation.)
I know that technically there was a 25-minute time period set aside for Ms. Hwang, but when one of the BOE members requested additional time for the children to speak, the suggestion was shot down because, among other reasons, it was deemed more important to discuss AstroTurf, and have time for a musical presentation, than to allow children the opportunity to stand up for matters of moral consequence that will affect a person’s professional standing and her ability to earn a living. Ironically, the BOE did in fact allow some children to speak beyond the 25 minutes, but not others, sending the confusing message to our children that some people’s voices can randomly be heard, but not others.
My father was a rabbi who marched in the South to protest the unfair treatment of African Americans. As a Jew and a gay man, I have seen in my own lifetime the importance of questioning authority when it is unfair. We teach our children the historic importance of activism in the struggle for the fair treatment of African Americans, women, LGBTQ, and other minorities. The determination of certain board members to shut down the voices of children, when they could have permitted them to speak and raise important issues, not only shows poor moral leadership, but also indicates that many BOE members had already made a decision about Ms. Hwang’s fate before the children spoke. For example, one child wanted to ask the BOE if the children who were not succeeding in Ms. Hwang’s class were also struggling in their other classes. If so, why was Ms. Hwang being singled out? I, too, would like an answer to that question.
In light of the issues raised above, I would like a response to the following questions:
- Why was the Interim Superintendent, Dr. Gayle Carrick, allowed to say that “there were no testimonies from any of the parents that evening” that fell into the category of parents who had struggling learners (whom Ms. Hwang is accused of not helping), when minutes before a father spoke on behalf of his child who was a struggling learner and was still able to succeed in Ms. Hwang’s class? (In fact, there were audible protests in the audience when Dr. Carrick made this inaccurate statement.) Why didn’t Dr. Carrick make a public retraction of her false statement? If she misrepresents something as factually clear as to who was speaking that night, how can we trust her with other assessments about which we do not have the full factual disclosure available? (And of course, there may have been other parents who fell into the category of parents with struggling children but, since so many people were not allowed to speak, we will never know.) I would like to know when we can expect a retraction from Dr. Carrick.
- Were the children who were not succeeding in Ms. Hwang’s class struggling in other classes? If so, why was Ms. Hwang singled out?
- How can the BOE reach a fully-informed decision on Ms. Hwang when they do not allow all the facts and issues to be raised and discussed by parents and children? This behavior implies that the BOE had already made up their minds without considering the facts.
- Does the BOE think they set a good example for our community when BOE member Elizabeth Baker and BOE President Annemarie Maini silence children, shut down an activist spirit, and send students the message that their voices don’t matter? (Maini, who at one point in the evening allowed for some extra time for speakers, later told one young man who had the courage to speak in public, “We are short on time, so can you please finish?”)
- What is the full context of Ms. Hwang’s use of the term “colored” (and her response), which was an issue brought up by one of the BOE members, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, who herself has used the racial epithet “skinhead”? Ms. Hwang is from Taiwan, and English is her second language. Because there was not a full discussion of her use of the word “colored’’ other than the recognition that Ms. Hwang did not use the term again after the issue was raised, there was no basis to make a judgment on this matter. You can imagine that a woman who is learning English may misunderstand the implications of certain words, particularly when the NAACP is called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. To learn that “colored person” is not acceptable but “person of color” is acceptable may not have been clear to her, but it does not automatically indicate she is racist. Because there was so little transparency in the meeting, one cannot reach a mature and informed understanding.
- Why is it acceptable for a member of the BOE, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, to expect a police officer to allow her to be exempt from the rules of protocol when issuing a speeding ticket but it is not acceptable to adjust the rules to allow our children the opportunity to share their views and opinions on a matter that they feel has moral implications?
I would like a full and detailed response to the questions raised above. I believe the towns of Maplewood and South Orange support transparency, accountability, and moral leadership—none of which were on display on June 13. If the BOE cannot embody those values, then they have no right making decisions that affect our children.
Written by Adam Siegel on behalf of and with the support of:
Jim & Aimee Lally
The opinions expressed are the authors’ views, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Village Green or its editors.