WEST ORANGE, NJ — Students and parents in West Orange expressed concern regarding allegedly racist incidents in the district at several recent Board of Education meetings, after a West Orange High School American history teacher reportedly taught a lesson on how the invention of the cotton gin entrenched slavery in the country by increasing the demand for enslaved labor to grow and pick cotton. The cotton gin removed seeds from cotton and allowed the cotton to be produced and shipped to cities in the northern part of the country faster than it ever had before; according to Superintendent C. Lauren Schoen the teacher picked seeds out of a piece of cotton to demonstrate the process.
“The staff member was attempting to demonstrate to the students how difficult it was to pick the seeds out of cotton compared to the cotton gin. The staff member said tomorrow the students would receive a small bit of cotton to remove the seeds in order to understand the task of picking the seeds and how difficult it was,” Schoen said while initially addressing the incident, which occurred at the end of April, at a May 9 BOE meeting. “The intention was to have empathy for the enslaved people and to understand the effect of the cotton gin.”
Schoen said later that day she, several BOE members, social studies supervisor Michael Figueiredo, WOHS Principal Hayden Moore and the teacher received an email from a concerned parent about the lesson. Figueiredo, WOHS administrators and the teacher met the next day, when the teacher was informed the lesson would not be taught as planned.
“It was explained that the activity could absolutely negatively affect students and had a high potential to be offensive, regardless of the intent,” Schoen said. “It was also explained to the staff member to inform her students that due to concerns she was moving on to the next topic.”
Moore emailed the parent who initially reached out; the parent responded and thanked him for addressing the concern. The staff member moved on from the lesson.
“While I can absolutely say to you that we are not perfect, there is no doubt, we do take ownership for that lesson that transpired and sincerely apologize to any of the students and parents who were concerned, offended and outright angry,” Schoen said. “The intention of the staff member and the district was not to elicit these feelings. Once the issue was brought to our attention, we swiftly stopped the anticipated lesson scheduled for the following day. This specific activity was not in the Unit 4 social studies curriculum” that was approved by the BOE.
She added that the district and high school administrators spoke directly to the parents who reached out to them, not knowing how many people outside the history class in question knew of the incident. Several parents at the May 9 meeting said their children were not in the teacher’s class but were concerned that they might be in the future and do not want the staff member to teach at WOHS. Similar comments were made at the May 23 BOE meeting, and Schoen said she would contact the speakers directly.
At the June 6 BOE meeting, students spoke about the incident and others they have experienced throughout their time in the district. Jason-Lamont Jackson, a WOHS business education teacher and track coach who also lives in town and has children in the district, said that he and his children have experienced racism in the schools.
“The students that I walk past every day in the hallways, their parents are sacrificing for them to be in this town for a reason,” Jackson said at the June 6 meeting. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that, while we are here, we are going to continue to advocate for them.”
Jasmine Prime, a Liberty Middle School student, said that she feels there is a lack of training for school staff on how to handle racism or what could be perceived as racism.
“A lot of the staff at our school don’t know how to discuss it with students or work through problems involving race, especially with students of a different race,” Prime said at the June 6 meeting. “I think there should be more discussions amongst staff, administrators and teachers about how to handle students that feel they are experiencing racism in school, because that’s unacceptable. I hope that something can be done on your part and the schools’ parts. I hope that we can come together and find a way to solve that issue in our community.”
Schoen said she would like the opportunity to meet with some of the students who spoke at the meeting individually, in addition to the LMS student council with which Prime is involved and other student councils in the district.
“As much as parents can advocate, and I want them to, you are all certainly articulate enough and intelligent enough to talk to me about something that I clearly need to understand better,” she said. “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. It is my job to inform this board and it is my job (to ensure we) move forward in the direction that will make a change.”