It is a challenging time in the South Orange-Maplewood School District, with incidents of racially insensitive and anti-Semitic social media posts setting off a firestorm of criticism and introspection.
Last night’s school security forum saw a frank and sometimes painful conversation as community members spoke largely against the hiring of a School Resource Officer (SRO) in the district, asserting such a move might seem threatening to students of color.
Now, after a third racially oriented video has surfaced online, featuring a Columbia High School student satirizing the recent “blackface” Instagram post, Superintendent Dr. John Ramos has asked the community to “take a step back” and work together to address issues of racial strife in the SOMSD schools.
The four-minute video, a copy of which was obtained by The Village Green, features a CHS student applying white makeup on her face while speaking about racial slurs and stereotypes commonly used against African-Americans and people of color. She invokes “white privilege” and gun violence, among other issues.
In an email sent Tuesday evening, Ramos said the video was apparently “in retaliation” for the previous incidents, and he asked parents and the community to help students “understand the impact their words, images and actions can have on other individuals and on our communities.”
He acknowledged that recent events “point to deeper, more institutionalized problems, and cautioned against creating an “‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset.”
Ramos continued, “Bias and racism cannot be tolerated in our community. Our only hope of eradicating them is to have courageous conversations and take action to address our problems head on.”
Meanwhile, a district spokeswoman said the issue of whether to hire an SRO was ongoing and the administration was continuing to collect feedback from the community.
“The comments from last night’s forum and those submitted through Let’s Talk! and by email will all be carefully considered, and then discussed at the committee level,” the spokeswoman said.” Administration is already scheduled to present an updated Safety Plan to the Board of Education during the June meeting. If the superintendent decides to recommend adding an SRO, then that recommendation will be presented to the Board for consideration as part of the June meeting.”
Here is Ramos’s full letter:
At the Board of Education meeting last Thursday, and again at our security forum last night, students have shared their reactions to the recent incidents of racially offensive images and comments on social media. The strong and honest voices of our students are a powerful sign that many of our young people value social justice and equality and are willing to stand up for what is right and be part of a constructive solution.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, we have had another incident of a student posting racially oriented material online, seemingly in retaliation for earlier incidents. While we are all grappling with the hurt and anger which these recent images can provoke, it is important that we take a step back and address the underlying issues. We will always deal with individual students confidentially, using our code of conduct and restorative practices to address behaviors.
As a community, we need to work together towards solutions, rather than focusing on the symptoms.
I once again ask for the partnership of all parents, guardians and community members in helping students understand the impact their words, images and actions can have on other individuals and on our communities.
We recognize that these incidents point to deeper, more institutionalized problems that have existed over time in our schools and in our nation. Our learning community has been intentional about addressing these issues, as indicated by the recent passage of the access and equity policy, and our continuing work around cultural competency and restorative practices. That said, we understand that there is a sharp difference between celebrating diversity and actually embracing it.
It is part of our purpose to help lead the school district and the greater community in efforts to become whole.
Bias and racism cannot be tolerated in our community. Our only hope of eradicating them is to have courageous conversations and take action to address our problems head on. We are in the process of taking footage from the student and staff public comments at the last board meeting and sharing it with the entire faculty at the high school for purposes of discussions and remedy. Our intention is to then move the conversation into the classrooms, for student discussion, facilitated by staff.
For those of us who are intentional about this work, we have to be careful not to create an “us” versus “them” mindset. While there may be differences of opinion about particular paths to take, it is important to focus on the fact that everyone is committed to empowering our students within an atmosphere of equity and excellence.
John J. Ramos, Sr. Ed.D.