Plaintiff in Suit Against SOMSD: Settlement is First Step Toward Equal Access and Equity

by The Village Green
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The South Orange and Maplewood Board School District this week settled a lawsuit with the Black Parents Workshop (BPW) over racial access and equity in the school district. BPW brought the suit against the district citing violations of federal and state laws, including the Civil Rights Act. The suit contended that the district had not met the standards stipulated in a resolution between the district and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights announced in October 2014. Read that resolution here.

As part of the settlement the district agreed to have its integration plan and programs be monitored by retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, Jr. The district will follow recommendations to be developed by education expert Dr. Edward Fergus, who has been consulting with SOMSD since 2018.

One of the plaintiffs, Elissa and Joe Malespina, who joined the suit on behalf of their son who they said received an unequal education because of his learning disabilities, said in a statement they plan to donate the majority of their settlement to the MapSO Freedom School. (Read more about the MapSO Freedom School here.)

“For us, this case was always about doing what we could to help ensure that students had equal access & equity in our schools and that our schools were racially integrated across all schools and within each classroom,” the couple wrote. The Malespinas declined to comment specifically on the amount of the settlement.

Here is the statement in full:

“After many years of fighting to make things more equitable for BIPOC students and students with disabilities in the South Orange and Maplewood School District, we are happy to have reached a settlement with the district. For far too long our students of color & students with disabilities have not received an equal education in this district and this historic settlement is the first step in ensuring that this happens. We agreed to be a part of this suit because we knew our experience was only the tip of the iceberg.

Elissa, as an educator for many years in the district, saw the inequities related to leveling, treatment of Black and special needs students, roadblocks limiting access to advanced classes, and a lack of diversity of staff. Our son experienced first-hand how Black and special needs students are often “taught down to” rather than supported and lifted up. From the beginning of this process, our family has stated we weren’t participating in the interest of personal monetary gains. For us, this case was always about doing what we could to help ensure that students had equal access & equity in our schools and that our schools were racially integrated across all schools and within each classroom.

In keeping with this, we will donate the majority of our portion of the settlement agreement to the MapSO Freedom School so that they can extend the reach of the already incredible work that has been occurring since that group’s inception in 2016. A portion of our donation will be used to set up a scholarship program so that youth from the greater Essex and Morris County area can attend Undoing Racism™ and Community Organizing training conducted by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

The MapSO Freedom School was co-created by a group of educators, parents, students, Columbia High School alumni, and concerned community members in response to the pervasive racial profiling Black students encounter within the community, district, and throughout all NJ schools. MapSO offers student empowerment programming centered on youth voice and anti-racist-social justice education &  professional development for educators. The MapSo Freedom school also organizes community events for educators, parents, students, and the community at large.

The MapSo Freedom School’s mission is to support students, educators, parents, and community members in building a more just, anti-racist and equitable school system and society, while fostering a critical dialogue that leads to action and changes within our community, with our youth at the center and driving force of this change.

You can learn more about the Freedom School Movement and its extensive history in this article The Forgotten Story of the Freedoms Schools by Jon H. Hale and this PBS Newshour segment on the History of the Freedom Schools. “

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