Racism and insensitivity in our schools

Threats to lynch black people, swastikas, slave auction posters appear in SOMSD buildings

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — It has been a rough couple of weeks for the South Orange-Maplewood School District in regard to tolerance and cultural competency.

Last week, South Orange Middle School reported two incidents of racist graffiti scrawled in bathrooms. The first incident, using the N-word, said that “Naughty (blacks) Get Lynched”; while the school did not go into detail regarding the second incident, the administration said a “similar racist message” was found.

Additionally, community members were horrified to see fliers auctioning off slaves and looking for runaway slaves hanging in the halls of South Mountain School. The student-made slavery auction posters and wanted signs were created as part of a lesson on Colonial America. Additionally, the school reported finding swastikas drawn on a desk and hearing a group of fourth-graders chanting Hitler’s name.

“Our school board and district are committed to ensuring that the civil rights and human dignity of every child and every adult in our school community are respected,” Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker told the News-Record in a statement made last week. “Hate, prejudice and intimidation have no place in our inclusive educational community. The wave of recent bias incidents both nationally and locally underscore how urgent the anti-bias and restorative justice work that we are doing in our schools is. This work is, and must remain, a top priority for our schools and our broader SOMA community.”

Regarding the incidents at SOMS, Principal Lynn Irby assured the community that the incidents had been reported to the South Orange Police Department as hate crimes and that the police have launched a full investigation.

“This is extremely disheartening and concerning, especially following our ongoing lessons and discussions about racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism,” Irby wrote in a March 7 letter. “This rhetoric is not accepted here and we are making every effort to identify the student(s) involved and to turn this into a teaching opportunity for our children.”

Following the first incident, the school held a town hall meeting with the seventh- and eighth-graders to discuss the “hurtful words.” The sixth-graders were spoken to the following day.

“Our goals at SOMS are to reinforce tolerance within our community and to have our students pride themselves on inclusivity and acceptance,” Irby wrote in the March 7 letter. “This can only happen if students recognize the seriousness of hate speech, reflect on it and learn how to reject this type of hate — both at home and within the school community. In our efforts to continue to make our school a welcoming community, we ask that you please speak with your children at home too. Frank conversations about acceptance of race, gender and religion are much needed during this time.”

Irby reminded the community that SOMS is part of “No Place for Hate,” a nationally recognized initiative to combat issues of hate and to minimize incidents of bias and bigotry from recurring.

“Classroom discussions are ongoing,” Irby wrote in a March 8 letter to the community, following the discovery of the second act of graffiti. “I am also continuing to reach out to community leaders so that we can partner together to address incidents and attitudes of bias, and to promote respect and value for the commonalities and differences between the various members of our SOMS and larger communities.”

While the incidents at SOMS are being investigated as hate crimes, the auction poster incident at South Mountain is being seen more as a poor educational choice.

“This week we have been immersed in discussions of the Colonial America project, and in particular the slave auction posters which some students chose to create as part of the assignment,” Principal Alyna Jacobs wrote in a March 10 letter to the community. “The strong response to this year’s project has deeply impacted staff and families alike, and I apologize for any unintended pain, anger or offense caused by the assignment.”

As for the incident involving the swastikas and chants of “Hitler,” Jacobs said the school “immediately conducted an investigation.”

“Unfortunately, incidents of students using hate symbols and words are taking place in schools in our district and across the country,” Jacobs wrote. “This may be fueled by recent national rhetoric, and may also be examples of students trying to provoke a reaction without having a full understanding of the history, meaning or impact of the gestures or words they are using.”

Jacobs assured the community that she met with each fourth-grade class and discussed the negative impact of using gestures, signs and symbols that convey hate. Jacobs also met with the school’s social worker to plan meetings with the rest of the school’s students.

Following these issues, Baker and Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. sent a joint letter to the community on March 12 — see the complete letter in the News-Record’s opinion pages — reaffirming their commitment to promoting tolerance, acceptance, cultural competency and ongoing dialogue.

“As issues of intolerance and exclusion continue to plague our country, the reality is that schools are a microcosm of society, and are not immune to what goes on around us,” Baker and Ramos wrote. “We are writing this letter together to reinforce that we are committed to realizing the goals of equity which are foundational to South Orange and Maplewood. Our communities and district have not, cannot and will not abide bias or intolerance of any kind.

“There is considerable work taking place in our schools on school climate, anti-bias education, culturally responsive teaching and restorative practices,” the letter continued. “The district is committed to this work and is planning to expand all these efforts in the coming year — despite the constraints on our resources. This is a top priority. Hate, bias and intimidation have no place in our inclusive school community.”

The letter went on to say that the school district is planning to hold a town hall meeting in the coming weeks to discuss policy implementation, professional development, curriculum revisions and programs currently under way.