Supt. Dr. John Ramos once again addressed recent incidents of bias and racism that have become “a flashpoint” in the South Orange – Maplewood School District, at a Board of Education meeting that was notable for frank and sometimes emotional comments from board members, teachers, administrators and students.
While reiterating that the district had zero tolerance for bigotry and bias, Ramos asked that the community consider the “context” in which the incidents occurred — specifically, slave auction posters and a mock slave auction in the elementary schools — and to not let the controversy distract from the important work that needs to be done.
The events have led the administration to launch a review of the specific Colonial History unit involved; in addition, Ramos will compile a chronological report of the string of recent incidents — which also include racist and anti-Semitic graffiti at South Orange Middle School –to be presented to the board and public next week, and will begin a review of the district’s Code of Conduct regarding how hate and bias crimes are investigated.
Ramos said the community should not be surprised by the impact the events have had. “When something like this comes to the fore…it’s like ripping a band-aid off…There are deep seated issues in our district and community and they manifest themselves in the schools.”
He reminded listeners that the Board of Education passed the Access & Equity policy, which he said was an “aspirational” and would take time to fully implement. The intentions are right but “we have a ways to go.”
“Regardless of what’s happened in the past, we are here now,” said Ramos. But he urged the community to seize the current moment — with a Board of Education, administration who are committed to making change. “It is our time to make these words come alive. Let’s not lose our focus.”
Ramos asked for the public’s help in addressing and reforming institutionalized policies that hold the district back from providing a high quality educational experience for all students — what he called “Job #1”. “We can’t do this by ourselves.”
Student representative Filip Saulean asked Ramos why he hadn’t addressed the slave auction poster issue sooner.”Why are we always in damage control time?” he asked.
Ramos bristled at that characterization. “I didn’t come [to the district] to uphold some set of racist standards…I came because the board said they were serious minded about taking on this work. This community has been having the same discussion for a long time. The question is are we serious about the work?”
He asked the community to refrain from blame and finger pointing and to stay focused on the important work of providing and supporting equity and access for all students — something he believes the district is uniquely positioned to accomplish with the current board, administration and community participation. “We’re not going to change overnight,” he said. “People can sit and be critical or they can be part of the solution.”
“Ten, five years from now it will be a different situation,” he said. “Now is the time.”
BOE member Johanna Wright chided the board and administration for “forgetting” about underserved and underrepresented students, during this year’s budgeting process. “We have to do better.”
[The BOE passed a preliminary $130 million 2017-18 budget on Saturday that raises taxes by 3.56%. The budget passed 8-1 with Wright voted against.]
Ramos countered that the budget has been deteriorating over time because of the 2% cap and an “unfair” state funding formula. He also noted that regarding curriculum review, he had reached out to the National NAACP legal defense fund to request that they monitor the district’s work.
“Integration is hard, messy work,” said BOE member Maureen Jones. She urged community members to reach out to people of races, genders and ethnicities other than their own to learn more about one another.
BOE President Elizabeth Baker reminded listeners that only a few years ago the district was experiencing “drift,” with many staff and administrative retirements and a superintendent vacancy. Since then, the board has immersed itself in reevaluating long-held policies and practices that were detrimental to student learning and the overall school climate.
Baker echoed Ramos’s assertion that now is the time to act, and that the board would be judged in a decade on what it did now.
District parent Tracy Jardin Woods demanded accountability for “damaging” curriculum activities, and presented the board with a list of recommendations for teaching African-American history in the district.
“You asked 5th grade students…to have the intellect to [understand]…a heinous time of American history that many adults don’t even understand,” said parent Walter Fields. He decried the “structural racism” of the district over the years and told the board, “You don’t have the luxury of time” to make real change.
Columbia High School senior Avery Julien condemned the slave auction poster assignment. Sounding incredulous, and noting that the issue made him sick to his stomach, Julien said, “That kind of content really doesn’t have a place in the classroom. How do you expect [black students] to come to school and feel comfortable? I’m disgusted.” He pointed out that there is a difference between exposing children to the painful realities of history and “perpetuating racism.”