(Editor’s note: the following comments were made by SOMSD Supt. Dr. John Ramos at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting in response to a recent incident involving social media posts at Columbia High School.]
First I want to make it clear that we absolutely reject these images and comments and at the same time we recognize that this is a teachable moment. In essence, several students made bad choices which were unacceptable. We are dealing with these choices using our code of conduct and restorative practices strategies and engaging community resources to help students recognize and address the effect of their behavior on the school community.
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.
We are planning several initiatives to promote tolerance and acceptance in our schools and and to help students promote greater sensitivity to cultural differences. We are also connecting with local community leaders to involve them in the process.
Our plan is threefold.
1. To support students in processing what happened in the short term and developing the tools to stand up to bias in the future as well as to make responsible choices with social media.
2. To provide teachers and other faculty with tools and professional development to both respond to bias incidents as well as to foster tolerance and help students develop the courage to be upstanding
3. To engage in a great community conversation that addresses bias incidents, race, culture, diversity and tolerance and reminds us why we choose South Orange-Maplewood as a place to call home.
This is a moment for us as a community. Everyone in our community needs to feel safe and valued and there is healing that needs to occur. We are confident that working together we will emerge as a much stronger and closer community that makes good on the promise of equity and excellence for each of its members.
I’d like to add a parenthetical:
We understand that celebrating diversity is not the same as embracing it. We all acknowledge that there are challenges that are steeped in the institutions that we participate in. That is why this board took the bold step of adopting the Access & Equity policy, for example, because it begins to address the structural ‘isms” that exist in this community and that is why we are engaged in practices like restorative practices and in cultural competency training to address what is not so tangible but is a very real aspect around will, around belief. And these are the things we are pursuing with intent. We are intentional about this work. I am inviting those who — anyone from across the community that has a particular idea about how to promote this work, how to propel this work, how to make this work fast-track and deep seeded — to come and meet with me and talk about it. Because we are most interested in making our commitments a reality.