The SOMA Black Parents Workshop and the parents of four students filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the South Orange-Maplewood School District, alleging the district has continued to violate state and federal law by engaging in discriminatory practices targeting black students, despite its stated intent over the last several years to address the issues.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of New Jersey in Newark, asks for an array of programs and initiatives that the plaintiffs estimate would cost in excess of $12 million, in addition to compensatory damages on behalf of the student-plaintiffs.
The suit comes just days after the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted on a sweeping consolidation of levels across math and science on the secondary school level, and at a time when the interim superintendent intends to unveil a plan to desegregate the elementary schools, in part through facilities planning.
Students at SOMSD “are segregated by race in its elementary schools, experience few Black teachers in their classrooms, African-American children are subjected to punishment for offenses that their White peers also commit but receive lesser punishment, and…all students walk through the same front door at Columbia High School but are then segregated by race in classrooms due to the district’s embrace of tracking and leveling,” said BPW Chairman Walter Fields in a news release announcing the suit.
The complaint alleges that despite the district’s own admission that it is engaging in “de facto segregation” and that it voluntarily entered into a resolution agreement in 2014 with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, “it has become abundantly clear that the district has taken little or no steps to meet its obligation under the agreement…and has no intention of doing so.”
The hope, said BPW legal counsel Robert Tarver, is to spur the district to “develop a comprehensive plan, supported by budget dollars, to de-level its academic structure, abandon tracking as a tool to segregate students by race, overhaul its disciplinary process, provide the necessary supports for African-American students, and recruit, hire and retain African-American teachers.”
As a result of its practices, black students in the district lag behind their white counterparts on state assessments, and there is a significant gap in college enrollment between black and white graduates of Columbia High School, the suit contends.
“This is an important decision to file this complaint.” said Fields. “The futures of African-American children in our nation is dependent upon their receiving a first-class education, no matter their zip code or socio-economic status.”
“We are at a point when we have to acknowledge the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s inability or lack of will to address its discriminatory practices,” said Tarver. “The school district is engaged in a pattern of practices that violate federal law and provisions of the New Jersey state constitution prohibiting segregation in pubic schools, and the denial of a ‘thorough and efficient’ education. They have been given multiple opportunities to remedy these practices and provide relief to African-American students and their families, and have failed. At this point our only recourse is to seek relief in court.”
In 2014, the OCR and SOMSD entered into an agreement regarding a complaint that alleged the district does not provide equal access for black students to participate in advanced and higher-level learning opportunities. In October 2017, a report presented to the Board by South Orange-Maplewood School District administration showed that, despite passing sweeping Access & Equity and Academic Placement policies in 2015, little meaningful progress has been made in closing the gap.
In November 2017, Fields announced the organization’s intention to file a lawsuit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District, citing “violations of federal and state laws, including Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Article I, Paragraph 5 of the New Jersey Constitution.”
At the November Board of Education meeting, Board President Elizabeth Baker gave a detailed report on what the district has been doing to fulfill the settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and outlined next steps.
On Tuesday, February 20, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted 7-2 to approve Resolution 3693, restructuring or “realigning” the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) curriculum, reducing math and science in second education by 15 levels in the district. Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra has indicated several times in the last few months that he is “looking at facilities planning with an eye to solving de facto segregation” at the elementary school level that will be unveiled this spring.
Fields and Tarver held a press conference in Maplewood today to announce the suit.
See the press release and the full complaint below.