SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — This month, the South Orange-Maplewood community was shocked by acts of racism and anti-Semitism on social media from local students. In response, several students and teachers spoke out at the May 12 Board of Education reorganization meeting, proposing ways to rectify the situation and begging the school district to acknowledge the problems and work to resolve them.
Two Columbia High School students recently came under fire for an Instagram photo they had posted months ago that was recently recirculated. The post shows two students who appear to be in blackface and the photo is underscored by caption that uses a variation of the N-word. The photo has since been removed from social media.
Also last week, several acts of alleged anti-Semitism have come to light at South Orange Middle School. In one incident, a SOMS student posted a collage on social media showing images of a swastika surrounded by Stars of David, Soviet Union symbols, extended middle fingers and the collapse of the Twin Towers — all set against the backdrop of a rainbow flag. An Instagram image on another student’s account seemingly makes reference to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. Both posts have been taken down and one of the Instagram accounts has been deleted. Additionally, it had been reported that Jewish students at SOMS have been met with slurs and been called “Jew-boy.”
The students involved in these incidents, as well as any identifying information, will not be revealed because they are minors.
Following that CHS incident, Principal Elizabeth Aaron made two announcements to students: the first on May 4 was about social media intelligence and maturity, and the second on May 5 was about racism and was prompted by outrage that the first announcement had focused on social media rather than hate.
Aaron then spoke out in a May 12 letter to the community, again denouncing racist, biased and bigoted expressions and actions.
But many members of the CHS community have said that more should be done, and they stood before the Board of Education May 12 to demand that the district take hate speech and hate actions seriously.
Language arts teacher Thomas Whitaker was critical overall of district administration, especially regarding the upcoming layoffs that will reduce the number of teachers of color at the high school. Whitaker told those gathered that, after a student — who later in the meeting identified himself as Mtume Findley — brought the blackface photo to his attention, he brought it to the CHS administration.
“Recent events have demonstrated once again that, despite the degree to which we trumpet diversity, issues of race and racism remain in our district,” Whitaker said at the meeting. “Here is the problem, this most recent event is the latest of many incidents that constitute a pattern of obfuscation and refusal to address racism head on and the conviction necessary to begin the healing process.”
Whitaker criticized the district for “shutting down student voices” and for allowing CHS to remain at status quo that has involved racism for many years. He drew attention to one incident from a few years ago in which students created a cruel intramural volleyball team name and T-shirts, and another incident in which a student comedy skit depicted a black teacher as stereotypical caricature. While the skit show was canceled by the administration, the skit was put on elsewhere, Whitaker said.
“Last week, Columbia High School administration addressed a blackface incident twice. Those well-intentioned efforts fell woefully short of what was needed to satisfy students who were hurt and angered,” Whitaker said, adding that not addressing these issues will just open the district to more lawsuits, like the currently well-publicized suit filed with the Office of Civil Rights that points to equality gaps between white and black students in the areas of education and discipline. “Given our current financial situation, SOMSD can no longer afford to sell out black children with concerned silence.”
Columbia High School librarian Teresa Quick also spoke out against the decision to cut 15 staff members from Columbia High School in order to balance the budget. “I believe the lack of diversity among high school staff is unacceptably low,” Quick said, adding that transferring black educators like herself out of CHS is detrimental.
While faculty spoke out, it was the impassioned speeches made by students that drew attention to the issue for nearly an hour.
Findley, the senior who co-founded CHS’ Black Student Union and is president of Diversity Rocks, said the high school, saying is diverse, but segregated. He added that he sees racial profiling from security officers and teachers, who act “like corrections officers” with black students.
“I’m only here to address and ask the board what they intend to do about the racist, derogatory, microaggressive and stereotypical events that have occurred in the past 20 to 30 years,” Findley said. “There are photo albums — not just one photo, but many — of white students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, throwing around the N-word like it was given to them as a Christmas present.”
According to Findley, this behavior is not confined to students. He recounted an incident in which a teacher — dressed as a Jamaican stereotype for Halloween — responded to a student’s question of why so many black students were standing around outside with, “They’re probably looking for their fathers.”
“From a historical perspective, it could be said that we’re in the gilded age of the South Orange-Maplewood School District. To some of us — to our administrators and to those of us who see South Orange-Maplewood only at its surface — our school district is having its best decade ever,” junior Carson Cummins said at the meeting, referring to the high school’s improved academics and athletics. “This has drawn a lot of young families to our area and I think it’s only fair that we tell these young families the truth. The truth is that our golden overcoat of diversity is simply concealing a plethora of racial tensions and inequality.”
Selah Marley, a CHS senior, echoed many of the same sentiments.
“I think that we are deliberately choosing to deny and ignore the biggest issue in the SOMSD: racism. This district perpetuates and enforces a system that was made to do nothing but prevent African-Americans from reaching success and self-actualization,” Marley said at the meeting, stating that the issue equally lies with the community. She drew attention to the signs posted in Maplewood labeling it a “stigma-free town,” which Marley finds unrealistic.
The “stigma-free town,” signs in Maplewood were posted to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“If this were a stigma-free town, would there be such a thing as Maplewood, Maplehood and Maplegood?” Marley asked, saying that residents of “Maplehood” tend to be black and Hispanic, while residents of “Maplegood” are “white people who live in mansions.”
“This town exudes racism but wears a mask of equality. However, the mask is transparent. I think we can all see through the facade, but the question is: Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why do we act like these problems don’t exist? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
Marley was not the only student to criticize Maplewood for calling itself a stigma-free town.
Student representative to the school board Nina Kambili, who made waves last week when she posted a message online criticizing the district’s response to this incident, argued that the “self-congratulation needs to stop” and that the two towns need to hold more cultural celebrations and that the schools need more peer support programs and need to make literature written by marginalized groups a regular part of the curriculum.
“The ‘stigma-free town’ signs are so ridiculous when we have issues like this,” Kambili said.
Liana Runcie, a CHS senior, agreed, saying, “Prove to me and all the people of color that you care and that CHS is really the progressive school it promised to be. What I am asking as a student of color is for this stigma-free town to make good on its word.”
Kendi Whitaker, a junior, asked that the two students involved in the incident make a public apology and write a paper on the history of blackface and the N-word to educate rather than punish. Many other students also spoke of the need, not to harass the students who did this, but to educate them and to work to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the district.
While the punishments for students at CHS and SOMS are not being released by the district, the superintendent did say that action is being taken.
In a May 16 message to the community, Aaron said she will be participating in a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., on May 20, with the U.S. secretary of education and principals from around the country and she intends to share the students’ comments from the BOE meeting with the group.
Following the speeches from students, Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. addressed the issue during his monthly progress report.
“I want to address the recent incidents of racist and anti-Semitic images and comments posted by students on social media. First, I want to make 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 that were unacceptable,” Ramos said “While we address these choices, we must remember that these are children and that they should not be vilified.”
The local community, the district and SOMS Principal Lynn Irby are taking a similar approach, attempting to use the recent anti-Semitic incidents at the middle school as learning opportunity.
“It became obvious that, while this is not a new occurrence to our community, our community had always come together in the past to curb hurtful behavior,” Irby wrote in a letter to the SOMS community. “We are coming together now as a community, but with a change. This time, we wanted to put in place programs and safeguards to stem the very cycle of this behavior.
“While we plan to have some ongoing meetings to be sure we are moving and keep moving in the right direction, the important this is not to ignore what has happened,” Irby continued. “Actions now, without retaliations, must be started. We are not going to teach nor allow retaliation. Retaliation goes hand (in) hand with racism and bullying. We want our students to truly understand there are better ways.”
In an effort to reach out to the community, district personnel met May 9 with the rabbis who lead South Orange’s three synagogues — Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El and Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation — as well as representatives from the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and that Anti-Defamation League. A meeting involving more stakeholders is planned for May 20.
The rabbis sent out a joint message to their congregations, saying that they are working with the school district and local leaders to address issues of anti-Semitism in the schools and calling the recent anti-Semitic incidents “unacceptable” and needful of “response.”
“Such response must, however, be serious in its intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges and the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place,” the rabbis wrote, describing their meeting with the district. “We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong. Second, the school has and will continue to address the specific events and those involved in them.
“Equally important, however, is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, outgoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large,” the rabbis continued. “We emerged confident that they will do just that.”
Both Aaron and Irby in their letters home made reference to work being done to organize outreach to pair students at the middle schools with high school leaders to promote understanding and responsibility.
Going forward, Ramos said at the May 12 meeting that the district plans to work with students regarding sensitivity and advocacy; provide professional education to teachers regarding handling these types of situations; and engage in a greater community conversation.
“We understand that celebrating diversity is not the same as embracing it,” Ramos said. “We all acknowledge that there are significant challenges that are steeped in the institutions that we participate in.”