SOMA BOE approves creation of task force to address sexual assault

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education approved creating a task force to protect students from sexual assault and violence at its May 17 meeting, following students speaking out about their own experiences at the April 19 meeting. The resolution allows Superintendent Ronald Taylor or a designee to appoint stakeholders to the task force; they can include students, educators, community organization representatives, health professionals and community members.

According to district Communications Director Anide Eustache in an email to the News-Record on May 24, Taylor and the administration are in the beginning process of identifying the people who will be on the task force and determining what their roles will be. Once the details are solidified, the district will share more information.

According to the resolution, the task force will “identify resources, resource gaps and barriers, and … review and conduct an assessment of the District Code of Conduct, board policies, district regulations, training protocols, implementation issues and procedures on sexual harassment and sexual and interpersonal violence, and teaching consent, evaluating overall health curriculum, identifying district protocols as well as preventative and support measures.”

A report will be presented to the BOE no later than September.

At the April 19 meeting, student BOE representative Lily Forman spoke about Columbia High School students sharing their assault experiences online. Student groups coordinated discussions, and Principal Frank Sanchez met with them and listened to feedback.

“The district’s response to these conversations should involve curriculum change, mental health support and a cultural shift in the district, not increased policing of students,” Forman said at the meeting. “We need to ensure that this response is thoughtful, intersectional and takes all student voices into account. These conversations have made it clear that our district needs to embed discussions about consent throughout students’ time in the district, not just in one grade, class, lesson or assembly. When we shy away from talking about consent at a young age with all students we fail them, as evidenced by the stories my classmates bravely shared over the past month.”

At the time, Taylor said he had spoken with Sanchez but the conversation was far from over.

“Board rep Forman and I had a conversation around not just addressing the most recent concerns at Columbia High School but, as she noted, going back to our middle schools and seeing what the genesis to these concerns is and making sure that we’re not afraid to have these important conversations,” Taylor said. “Students need to have them as early as we can have them.”