SOMSD, Black Parents Workshop reach settlement agreement

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In February 2018, the Black Parents Workshop filed a federal lawsuit against the South Orange–Maplewood School District, drawing attention to the marginalization of black students in the district and the segregation seen in the district’s elementary schools. On July 13, the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education approved a settlement with BPW that will put the lawsuit in the rearview mirror but keep the work of desegregation and increasing equity a priority.

This conversation began long before BPW, through its lawyer Robert Tarver Jr., filed its 2018 lawsuit. On Oct. 10, 2014, the ACLU, ACLU–NJ and the UCLA Civil Rights Project filed a civil rights complaint against SOMSD with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that discriminatory practices led to racial disparities in advanced-level courses and student discipline. Less than a month later, on Oct. 28, 2014, the district signed a resolution agreement with the OCR in which the district committed to addressing these racial disparities.

Since 2014, the school district has hired consultants to review its practices and systemic operations that lead to racial disparities, and has solicited public feedback for ways it can improve. Approximately one year after the initial complaint was filed, in October 2015, the BOE passed the Access & Equity Policy, which was meant to remove barriers to advanced-level courses by allowing students to opt in to higher-level courses. Since the policy’s passage, there has been debate on its effectiveness. Some say that the policy truly has opened doors to higher-level classes; others argue that, without proper supports in place to assist students opting in to higher-level courses, these classes are still not accessible.

BPW founder Walter Fields agreed, which in part prompted the 2018 lawsuit. But, according to the school district, through good faith discussions, the parties have reached a settlement that recognizes the strides the district has already made under the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor, while incorporating proposals for further improvement offered by BPW. In its statement, the Board of Education also expressed gratitude to former interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra, who helped bring to fruition the district’s $160 million construction project, which was approved by the Board of School Estimate and will ultimately assist in the realization of the board’s recently approved Intentional Integration Framework.

In June, the board approved the district’s Intentional Integration Initiative, which calls for an algorithm to help assign new students to schools so as to enhance racial and socioeconomic diversity in the schools. The initiative proposes beginning the process with kindergarten students in fall 2021 and continuing with sixth-graders at the two middle schools in fall 2022.

“We welcome the opportunity to put this litigation behind us and move forward together as a district and community, working to live our creed of service and to truly embody our mission to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions, and to collectively create a better future,” Taylor said in a July 14 statement.

Under the terms of the formal settlement agreement, the district will implement recommendations to be developed by Temple University’s Edward Fergus, a nationally acclaimed expert who has been consulting with the district since 2018. According to the district, to promote public confidence, transparency and accountability, implementation of Fergus’ recommendations will be monitored by former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John Wallace Jr. 

“The board voted unanimously to approve this settlement as it helps us move closer to delivering upon the as-yet-unrealized promise of the access and equity policy passed in 2015,” BOE President Annemarie Maini said July 14. “As was clear over the past few days of board retreats, we all share the commitment to ensuring that all students feel welcomed and receive the supports — academic and social-emotional — that they need to get closer to actualizing our district’s mission statement.”

Fields is pleased with the settlement but reminds that the SOMA community is still in the beginning stages of fixing racial inequities and must continue to do the work.

“This is a historic victory for black students and families in the communities of South Orange and Maplewood,” said Fields, who serves as BPW Legal and Policy Committee chairperson. “It is one of the rare instances in the nation when the grievances of black students have been litigated and resolved in a manner that addresses patterns and practices that have undermined black students’ success. However, it should not have taken a lawsuit for this school district to agree to the measures in this settlement. We do commend the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education for coming to terms on the issues we raised and hope we are entering a new phase of cooperation and collaboration in the spirit of providing all children an excellent education. This is not the end, but the beginning of a process to inculcate equity in this district. It is our expectation that a real effort now be put forth to close the unacceptable racial achievement gap in this school district. The real work now begins.” 

BPW’s attorney is similarly pleased with this outcome and applauded the district for the steps already taken.

“I am extremely gratified that we were able to resolve this matter for the benefit of the district’s black children. The settlement is, I believe, landmark in its scope and represents what can be accomplished through strategic advocacy and cooperative action,” Tarver said. Tarver observed, “Since the filing of our lawsuit, the South Orange–Maplewood School District has taken some steps to remedy some of the issues we raised in our complaint, including the reassignment of principals we identified as ill-equipped to meet equity goals; moving toward the full implementation of the state-mandated Amistad black history curriculum; and ceasing the practice of calling police into Columbia High School for disputes best handled by school staff. We have also had two successive superintendents acknowledge our claim that the district’s K-5 elementary schools are unlawfully racially segregated. These steps are commendable and should point us in the direction of larger systemic reforms.” 

The settlement agreement has the following stipulations: SOMSD will hire Fergus to develop the student reassignment plan for the integration of the district’s K-5 elementary schools, with the expectation of the full integration of the district’s elementary schools for fall 2021, and to advise on the creation of programs and supports the district must fund to facilitate black students’ enrollment in advanced-level classes; BPW will have input into the development of the integration plan and, in the event of any conflicts, can seek relief in the court; SOMSD agrees to publicly report class enrollments by race and gender for both middle schools and the high school; the district agrees to publicly report suspensions and expulsions by race and gender for each school in the district; SOMSD agrees to create the position of assistant superintendent for equity and access, and that individual will monitor the district’s progress in meeting the terms of this settlement agreement; the district will provide verification from the New Jersey Department of Education to BPW that the district is in full compliance with the state-mandated Amistad black history curriculum; the district will work with BPW to develop relationships with historically black colleges and universities for the purpose of identifying black teacher candidates for the district; SOMSD will pay all plaintiffs in this litigation and will pay BPW’s legal fees in this matter; and BPW retains the right to seek relief in federal court should SOMSD not meet the provisions of this settlement agreement.

The agreement will be monitored by Wallace, whom Fields praised for his legal prowess.

“Justice Wallace is one of the most respected members of the New Jersey bar who has served on the state’s highest court,” Fields said. “He is uniquely qualified to serve in this role as monitor, and the school district and community will be aided tremendously by his input and guidance.” 

According to Fields, this settlement agreement is a milestone not only for the SOMA community, but for school districts across the nation, as many other districts are now struggling to correct issues of racial inequity and segregation.

“This is an important moment for black parents and families outside this particular community and school district,” Fields said. “Too often, across the country, the concerns of black families regarding the care and education of their children is disregarded as ‘complaining’ or ‘rabble-rousing.’ Black children sit in classrooms every day and know that they are being mistreated, marginalized, and not receiving an education equivalent to their white peers. I encourage you to visit the Instagram page ‘blackatsomsd’ and read the stories of our children’s experiences in this school district. What we achieved in the South Orange–Maplewood School District is a template for school districts across the nation, in urban and suburban communities.”