A number of students and one teacher spoke scathingly at Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting about a climate in the South Orange-Maplewood School District — and in particular at Columbia High School — that they say not only tolerates but tacitly enables racism.
Referring to an incident where two sophomore girls posted a photo on Instagram showing themselves in what appeared to be blackface, CHS language arts teacher Thomas Whitaker said it was part of a “pattern of obfuscation and refusal to address racism head on without the conviction necessary to begin the healing process.”
Whitaker said CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron’s effort to address the issue in two announcements to the community “fell woefully short,” Whitaker said, and “the ripple effect” was “staggering.”
Whitaker, who served on the district’s Strategic Planning committee, asked why the administration was ignoring its history of “shutting down student voices,” citing incidents over the last decade including the dismissal of a “racist” CHS principal, an incident involving CHS students at a volleyball game wearing T-shirts with “pro-slavery” images, and a student skit that featured what some believed was a racially insensitive portrayal of a black CHS teacher.
He continued, “When racist events are glossed over it leaves the door open for students, teachers and community members to question the moral and ethical compass of this district.”
“The South Orange-Maplewood School District can no longer afford to sell out black children with concerned silence.”
Black students spoke of being “hurt” and “outraged” by the incident and frustrated by what they see as the district’s lack of decisive action. Several took issue with the fact that Aaron’s initial message focused on the dangers of inappropriate social media posting, and with the harassment the two students have allegedly experienced, rather than the insensitive nature of the post itself. After a group of students met with Aaron to express their frustration, she made the second announcement stating the district would not tolerate racism.
Some students believe the district should be doing more, both in terms of making sure the two students understand the consequences of their actions — one called for the two to make a public apology — and educating the student body as a whole: “The excuse of being dumb, young and ignorant should not be tolerated.”
Students accused the district of “tiptoeing” their way around the issue and challenged them to “prove…to people of color that you care and that CHS is the progressive school it promises to be.”
While the district “is having its best decade ever” in terms of academics and sports, said one CHS junior, it still struggles with racial issues. Moreover, the student felt that the new Access & Equity Policy “cannot and will not alleviate the setbacks that students of color have faced.”
One student told of numerous instances of “blatant racism” at the high school, with white students “throwing around the ‘N’ word like it was given to them like a Christmas present.”
A senior accused CHS of perpetuating racism. “We can all see through the façade…but why aren’t we doing anything about it?” One student said the district was more concerned about its image than about dealing with institutionalized racism.
It is “disturbing to see acts of ignorance especially in a place celebrated for its diversity,” said another.
Supt. Dr. John Ramos said the district “absolutely reject[s] these images and comments and at the same time we recognize that this is a teachable moment.” Noting that the students “made bad choices” that were “unacceptable,” he said the administration was using different resources to “help students recognize and address the effect of their behavior on the school community.”
Ramos continued, “While we address the choices, we must remember that these are children and they should not be vilified. The recent national conversation plays to people’s lower nature and has given tacit permission for people to say whatever they want to say no matter how offensive. The incident presents us with an opportunity to counter the national rhetoric and reaffirm the longstanding commitment of our school district and these two towns to diversity and to living and working together in an inclusive community in which every member feels safe.”
The district is planning several initiatives, in conjunction with community leaders, to promote tolerance and sensitivity, Ramos said.
“I’ve been very proud of the work that we’ve been doing in the past year…to address issues of equity, of meaningful opportunity and to ensure that no student or member of our school community … experiences discrimination, bias or feels a lack of respect,” said Board President Elizabeth Baker. “However … tonight underscores the challenges that we all face as a community and as adults in terms of modeling what is right for our children to moving beyond what’s on paper and policy and actually confronting the shortcomings of our reality.”
While noting that she is proud to go to Columbia High School, student representative Nina Kambili remarked on the dissonance of living in so-called “stigma-free” towns where such bias incidents take place. She pointed to the “irony of bringing our children to see Ruby Bridges speak in the same building where de facto segregation is going on.”
“The self congratulation has got to stop.”
Kambili called for peer support programs, curricular changes, cross-town events, and changes to the code of conduct that clearly outlines ramifications for hate speech and hateful acts.
She ended, “I just want an acknowledgement that we are all responsible and we all have work to do.”