For the second time in a week, South Orange-Maplewood students’ social media posts have caused a firestorm.
An incident at SOMS involving students who allegedly made anti-Semitic comments and verbal slurs against Jewish students has led to an investigation by the district.
Now, an Instagram photo of two Columbia High School students appearing to be in blackface, accompanied by a racially-loaded caption, has sparked more consternation from the community and strong words from school administration.
In the CHS incident, two students posted a photograph of themselves with their faces smeared with a brown substance, captioned with a slang term for the “N” word. The photo, which has since been taken down, was reportedly posted months ago but was recently recirculated on Twitter by a student critical of its content. That tweet was then disseminated among the student body, leading to widespread outrage.
On Wednesday, CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron delivered a strongly-worded message to students over the loudspeaker during morning announcements, cautioning them about the impact of social media and the potential consequences. “Words, images, and ideas that you share can and do cause real harm,” said Aaron. “Once done, that harm cannot ever truly be undone.”
Aaron reminded students that the district takes seriously state laws on HIB (Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying) as well as the school’s Code of Conduct, and that choices that students make in violation of those guidelines can and will have “real consequences.”
“We each have the power every day to work for peace, social justice, and a democracy that serves and enriches everyone. Please keep those high expectations and that power in mind when you walk, talk, post, and act as a member of the Columbia High School community,” she said.
On Thursday, Aaron again public addressed students, this time referring to (but not specifically identifying) racially charged social media posts. “Please know that as a community of learners and scholars at CHS, we will not tolerate racist language and images. Such language and images demean and devalue who we are as students, staff, and teachers, and as a community,” said Aaron.
Asked for comment, a district spokeswoman sent the following response from Supt. Dr. John Ramos:
“This week we have responded to several instances of students posting culturally insensitive pictures and comments on social media. School administrators are addressing the individual incidents, using both our code of conduct and restorative practices strategies to help students recognize and address the effect of their behavior on the school community.
“We know that these incidents do not reflect the values of the student body as a whole. They do, however, highlight the need for us to really focus on one of the strategies central to our emerging strategic plan: We will infuse cultural competency in every aspect of our learning community. The district is committed to helping students understand the impact their words and actions can have on other individuals and on our communities, so that we can ensure that all students feel comfortable and safe in our schools.”
The following remarks were written by Ms. Aaron with input from Columbia students this week in response to social media choices made by CHS students:
May 4, 2016
I wanted to spend a couple minutes talking about something quite serious. CHS is a great place – it’s a strong place, well-regarded for the services, education, and experiences it provides for its students. It is nationally-ranked and recognized for its overall excellence.
That said, much like any other school, CHS is only as strong and as good as its students and staff choose to make it. This week, students’ use of social media has brought some of the worst thinking and behavior of our students to the forefront of the work we have to do and negatively impacted many of us.
Social media is private. Filters don’t work. Your posts to “closed groups” or selected groups of friends can easily become public. This has become painfully clear to some of us in the CHS community since Monday afternoon.
Words, images, and ideas that you share can and do cause real harm. Once done, that harm cannot ever truly be undone.
Please know that the CHS administration takes state and federal law, our school Code of Conduct, and Board of Education laws and policy regarding harassment, intimidation, and bullying seriously.
Each and every individual at CHS is expected to act not only in accordance with those laws and expectations, but also to know we do hold you and ourselves accountable to them.
We each have the power every day to work for peace, social justice, and a democracy that serves and enriches everyone. Please keep those high expectations and that power in mind when you walk, talk, post, and act as a member of the Columbia High School community.
May 5, 2016
This week the CHS community has learned powerful and unpleasant lessons about social media use and misuse. In particular, racist and offensive images and words were spread quickly through many of your social networks. They have also been widely shared outside our community.
Please know that as a community of learners and scholars at CHS, we will not tolerate racist language and images. Such language and images demean and devalue who we are as students, staff, and teachers, and as a community.
There is, as these incidents indicate, much work to do here at CHS. There is nothing funny or appropriate about racist images or words. They do not have place at our school and they do not reflect our values or vision. Please remember that always, and especially in the weeks ahead as we move toward the conclusion of our school year and graduation for our seniors as they look forward to their lives and success beyond CHS.