BPW to file lawsuit against school district over racial disparities

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The SOMA Black Parents Workshop announced its intention to file a lawsuit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District during a press conference Tuesday, Nov. 14, after data released by the district showed continued racial disparities and little improvement to the achievement gap in the district, especially at Columbia High School. The lawsuit, which the organization said it will file in the next three to four weeks, alleges that the district did not comply with the Resolution Agreement it signed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and did not make an effort to address the racial issues it faces.

The BPW is referring to the voluntary agreement the school district signed with the OCR in 2014 after the district was cited for racial disparities in discipline and enrollment, in which black students were disciplined at a higher rate and more harshly than their white peers and in which black students were being denied access to advanced level classes. Part of this class enrollment segregation was tied to the district’s “tracking” of black students into lower level classes.

According to the BPW, the district has not done enough to rectify these issues and has not followed the terms of its agreement with the OCR. The workshop also accused the district of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Article I, paragraph 5 of the New Jersey Constitution, which says: “No person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil or military right, nor be discriminated against in the exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

“What is the district doing to encourage students to take advanced level courses? They’ve been told, ‘Make your choice in the spring, because you can’t level up,’” BPW Chairman Walter Fields asked at the Nov. 14 press conference, referring to when students choose their classes and course levels for the next school year. “This has been a practice forever in this school district, and it starts in elementary school. Judgments are made about students’ success.”

Citing the “tracking” portion of the lawsuit, Fields said that, beginning at an early age, students are placed into one level of a subject and not given the opportunity to move up. When they reach middle school and high school, these students are unable to take advanced level classes because they have not been prepared for the work required.

Data from the N.J. Department of Education shows disparities in the enrollment rates of white and black students from CHS in two-year and four-year colleges. According to the data, 5.5 percent of white students were enrolled in a two-year college 16 months after graduating CHS and 94.5 percent went to a four-year college in the same time frame, as opposed to the 43.3 percent of African- American students at two-year colleges and 56.7 percent at four-year colleges.

“We should be making sure every student is college ready,” Fields said. “Every student who receives a Columbia diploma should be ready. It’s a strange picture when two towns have a reputation of diversity, but are basically segregated.”

Information released at the Oct. 16 BOE meeting showed that while the Access & Equity policy, which was instituted to remove barriers keeping students from higher level classes, has made some gains in combating enrollment disparities, there are still some major areas for improvement. According to the report, black students have not increased their participation in accelerated math from fifth to sixth grade at the same rate as white students. In ninth-grade English language arts, less than 50 percent of black students are in honors, compared to 90 percent of white students — a trend that follows through to 10th grade. Similarly, in ninth-grade biology, 36.6 percent of black students are in honors, compared with 89.1 percent of white students.

Fields expressed frustration with the BOE, saying the data should have been presented earlier than the Oct. 16 meeting. According to the OCR agreement, the district was supposed to file reports in August 2015, 2016 and 2017 but the data was not gathered until summer 2017. He said that data should have been compiled during the three years, as agreed.

“It would be one thing if this was happening over the last two years,” Fields said. “But this has been happening for two decades. We’re still at square one. The only way to get it fixed is if the district is held accountable to the law. We’re tried every trick in the book to work with this district.”

According to BOE President Elizabeth Baker, she agrees that the situation is frustrating but objects to the BPW’s allegations that the board is not doing everything it can to rectify the issues.

“I share the community’s frustration that decades of hyper-leveling in our secondary schools and other structures that have held many students back, particularly students of color, have not been easily overcome in the two years since the Access & Equity policy was adopted. Dismantling those structures is the primary reason I ran for the board,” Baker said in a recent email to the News-Record. “However, I categorically reject the assertion that the school district has not adopted aggressive measures to implement the Access & Equity policy. Further, the assertion that the district has not complied with the OCR resolution agreement is simply not true.”

Baker outlined the many steps the district has taken to correct the situation and to remain in compliance with the OCR resolution agreement.

“After the Access & Equity and the revised Academic Placement policies were adopted in October and December 2015, respectively, the district, with input from the Black Parents Workshop and other stakeholders, adopted the Access & Equity implementation plan in June 2016 for the first phase of implementation of the work,” Baker said. “This plan extended through the 2016-2017 school year — the period covered by the Oct. 16 presentation — and it included the lifting of adult-contrived barriers to higher level courses, major changes in the scheduling process, dramatic improvements in communications with parents about math placement, curriculum and course selection options, and anti-bias training in which the district is deeply engaged. The district also started the curricular revision work that was required by the two policies, including the elimination of Level 2 Math in sixth through ninth grades, and the district appointed a leader from the Black Parents Workshop to head the Cultural Competency team in the strategic planning process.

“While the implementation work slowed last spring due to an administrative leadership gap in Central Office, the board moved swiftly and deliberately to hire Dr. Thomas Ficarra as our interim superintendent with the express mandate of fully integrating our schools and programs, rooting out bias, creating a positive climate, and reconstructing both curricular and administrative structures to ensure high-quality pedagogy for every child,” Baker continued.

While some have pointed to Ficarra with hope that he will help expedite this important work, Fields was clear that he believes this issue goes beyond any one person. When asked whether he thought the election of Anthony Mazzocchi and Robin Johnson Baker, the two newest members of the BOE, would create fresh perspective and change in the district, Fields said this had not been taken into consideration in the decision to file the lawsuit.

“We can’t take that chance; we don’t want to wait and see,” he told the News-Record at the press conference. “We’ve been waiting for 20 years. There’s something wrong at the Board of Education level when there’s nothing for a few years and then, before an election, they do a data dump.”

According to BPW legal counsel Robert Tarver, the goal of the lawsuit is not a monetary one. “New Jersey has constitutional provisions that prohibit discrimination by public education,” he said at the press conference. “We’re not at a point where we’re guessing anymore. The district has not met their obligations, and we want to force them to comply with what they agreed to comply with.”

Tarver referred to the high discipline rate of black students at CHS in the 2014-2015 school year. Forty-five African-American students were suspended during the year, as opposed to just five white students.

“They are disciplined at an incrementally high rate and no official action has been taken. We have damages and long-term effects,” Tarver said. “These students are not being given the same opportunities as students in the higher tracks and levels.”

Tarver again said that while the point of the lawsuit is not money, the BPW wants the SOMSD to comply with state laws and take steps to close the achievement and discipline gaps in the district. The organization is still considering what, exactly, it intends to gain from the lawsuit, but possibilities include special programs in the district and stipulations for hiring more minority teachers and district staff members.

Fields also said that although black students bear the brunt of the disadvantage in the school system, the white students are also affected.

“It does harm to the white students, too,” he said. “With the segregation that we have, it’s robbing the white students of the diversity and perspectives. They too are losing out. For two towns that pride themselves on diversity, it’s startling to see them in the crosshairs of something like this.”

For Baker though, the continued negation of the district’s work and allegations of noncompliance contribute to this issue still being a problem, as it draws focus away from the work, instead casting blame and creating arguments.

“As the board and Dr. Ficarra made crystal clear at the Oct. 16 meeting, this work is proceeding at full speed,” Baker said. “A straightforward and honest presentation of the course enrollment data was essential for the board — and the community — to pinpoint where we now need to focus and drill down. Claims that no progress has been made and that a lawsuit is needed to push the work forward might make for catchy headlines or Facebook posts, but these claims ignore what is actually happening. Even worse, they threaten to divert precious resources and detract from the work itself. Words in a press release, or a even complaint in court, are just that. Words. But the actual work of equity is hard and it is real. I remain 100 percent focused on that work. That is what I have been elected, and now re-elected, to do.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic