District struggles with intolerance online

Incidents at Columbia High School, South Orange Middle School create backlash in community

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — As social media spreads one’s words globally and instantly, it has become much easier for foolishness and cruelty to be dispersed. The South Orange-Maplewood School District knows this all too well, especially following the two incidents that came to light last week involving racist and anti-Semitic social media postings made by students at Columbia High School and South Orange Middle School.

Two CHS students have come under fire for an Instagram photo they posted months ago that has recently been recirculated. The post shows two students who appear to be in blackface, with a caption that uses a variation of the N-word. Though the photo was removed from social media, the outrage remains.

Also last week, several acts of alleged anti-Semitism have come to light in South Orange Middle School. In once incident, a SOMS student posted on social media a collage 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 as they are minors.

The incident at CHS prompted Principal Elizabeth Aaron to speak to students on May 4 about social media intelligence and maturity, and again on May 5. After praising positive aspects of the high school, Aaron addressed the seemingly racist post.

“That said, much like any other school, CHS is only as strong and as good as its student and staff choose to make it,” she told students May 4. “This week, students’ use of social media has brought some of the worst thinking and behavior of our students to the forefront of the work we have to do and negatively impacted many of us.”

She then addressed the proliferation of social media postings. “Filters don’t work. Your posts to ‘closed groups’ or selected groups of friends can easily become public. This has become painfully clear to some of us in the CHS community since Monday afternoon. Words, images and ideas that you share can and do cause real harm. Once done, that harm cannot ever truly be undone.”

Aaron addressed her students again the following day.

“This week the CHS community has learned powerful and unpleasant lessons about social media use and misuse. In particular, racist and offensive images and words were spread quickly through many of your social networks. They have also been widely shared outside our community,” Aaron said May 5. “Please know that as a community of learners and scholars at CHS, we will not tolerate racist language and images. Such language and images demean and devalue who we are as students, staff and teachers, and as a community.

“There is, as these incidents indicate, much work to do here at CHS,” she continued. “There is nothing funny or appropriate about racist images or words. They do not have a place at our school and they do not reflect our values or vision. Please remember that always, and especially in the weeks ahead of us as we move toward the conclusion of our school year and graduation for our seniors as they look forward to their lives and success beyond CHS.”

“We know that these recent incidents do not reflect the values of the SOMSD student body as a whole, or the values of the South Orange and Maplewood communities,” Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. wrote in a May 6 letter to the community. “They do, however, highlight the need for us to really focus on one of our strategies central to our emerging strategic plan: We will infuse cultural competency in every aspect of our learning community.”

Cultural competency is the main mission of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, which works to bridge gaps and promote equality and understanding between all residents in the two towns.

“Blackface is always offensive because its intent is racist. It reinforced a racist message about black people as inferior and it is an intentionally oppressive image. There is nothing innocent, funny or unintentional about it,” CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier told the News-Record in a May 9 email. “When this type of racism manifests in the community, we know once again how critical it is to provide ongoing opportunities for learning, discussion, healing and empowering allies to speak up for racial justice.

“The Community Coalition on Race’s commitment to our residents is to foster and build a racially inclusive community,” she continued. “We provide opportunities for people to discuss race-related issues as well as opportunities to build relationship across racial boundaries.” In fact, the CCR holds multiple events throughout the year to promote cultural competency, with their most recent being held last night, May 11, when “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” author Beverly Daniel Tatum revisited the school district.

While the nature of the punishments for students at CHS and SOMS are not being released by the district, the superintendent did assure that action is being taken.

“School administrators are addressing the individual incidents, using our code of conduct and restorative practices strategies, and engaging community resources to help students recognize and address the effect of their behavior on the school community,” Ramos wrote in his districtwide letter.

In an effort to reach out to the community, district personnel met with several local rabbis on Monday, May 9, to discuss the incident at SOMS.

According to Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, the meeting was scheduled to be an informal gathering to make sure the district and the local Jewish community are on the same page and can synchronize their responses.

However, Cooper stressed that it is most important to understand the incident fully before rushing to conclusions.

“The most important thing is to learn the details. You have to become informed about what happened — if anything happened,” Cooper told the News-Record in a May 9 phone interview, stressing that the community should not overreact until all the details are known. “What were the motivations? The context? We need to know this to determine the appropriate response.”

According to Ramos, fact-finding was the district’s first reaction as well.

“When families shared concerns about instances of anti-Semitic images and contents recently posted by students, school administrators immediately initiated an investigation into the specific incidents and addressed the climate and culture at SOMS,” Ramos said in statement given to the News-Record. “While student confidentiality bars us from discussing both the investigation and any resulting disciplinary action, the South Orange and Maplewood school community can rest assured that we take all issues of intolerance and bias extremely seriously and will support all of the students involved, as well as the student body at large.”

In his letter to the community, as well as in statements given to the News-Record, Ramos stressed that such actions do not reflect the community at large and do not reflect the entirety of the student bodies at the two schools. He has stated more than once that these incidents show how important the strategic plan, which promises to “infuse cultural competency in every aspect of our learning community,” is to the SOMSD. He also asks that the community work together to educate students about the ramifications of public postings online.

“We ask for the partnership of all parents, guardians and community members in helping students understand the impact their words, images and actions can have on other individuals and on our communities,” Ramos wrote in his districtwide letter. “It is also essential that students understand that their use of social media leaves behind a digital footprint, in addition to any immediate impact it may have. Something that may seem like a funny prank today may be found by a potential school or employer in the future and may negatively impact future opportunities.”

But Ramos’ message is not sitting well with everyone, especially CHS student Nina Kambili, the eloquent young woman who serves as student representative to the Board of Education.

“These are not just ‘funny pranks.’ I understand the intention behind that word choice, but I’m disgusted that the theme of this letter is not ‘we need to address racism in this school district,’ but rather ‘teach your children how to hide their racism,’” Kambili wrote in a social media post on the “South Orange-Maplewood Cares About Schools” Facebook page. “As a student of color who has discussed this extensively with other students of color/marginalized groups, this is just an extension of what we’ve been dealing with in this district for a long time.”

Kambili called Ramos’ repetition of the strategic plan “troubling,” as she does not feel it will result in the districtwide soul-searching necessary to deal with prejudice.

“There is a major opportunity here to identify the problem and attempt to educate students, do a communitywide event, or commit to teaching the history of marginalized groups,” Kambili wrote. “But once again we get meaningless words to placate justified anger and (an) administration who refuse to take responsibility and initiative.”