As you surely are aware, our community has not been spared from the recent uptick in bias incidents that have been seen throughout our nation. In addition to the swastikas and other hateful graffiti painted on a pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation, there have been numerous expressions of anti-Semitic and racial bias in our schools. Swastikas have been drawn on walls and desks, students have been heard to invoke the name of Hitler and have even made a Hitler salute toward other students. There have also been reports of bias against African-Americans and transgender boys and girls in the schools.
As part of their response to these incidents, Dr. John Ramos, Superintendent of the South Orange and Maplewood School District, and his staff convened a meeting yesterday with local clergy. The purpose of the meeting was not only to enable the clergy to hear, directly from Dr. Ramos, what actions he and his staff are taking in response to these bias incidents but also to allow us to share our thoughts and concerns.
The meeting was candid and productive, and enabled us to gain a better understanding of how the District is responding. We were pleased to have had the opportunity to express our concerns and came away confident that Dr. Ramos and his staff listened to us.
Some of the key points made include the following:
1. The school administration and the clergy have mutual goals and are equally committed to earnest action that leads to consistent anti-bias messaging. That action must include staff training on all levels in every school. The clergy are committed to working in partnership with the schools. Our presence in the 8th grade at SOMS last week for a discussion about anti-Semitism and the meaning of Judaism was an important expression of that partnership.
2. We stressed the importance of a consistent response to every incident of bias in any form it may take. For their part, the school administration expressed a commitment to creating a process that ensures consistent messaging from each school to parents when a bias incident occurs.
3. We emphasized the importance of specifically labeling bias expressions and acts when they occur. We expressed our concern that, at times, there has been a reluctance on the part of the school administration to identify and specifically name an act or expression as racist or anti-Semitic because the intent of the offending student is not clear. We made clear that labeling anti-Semitic or racist acts for what they are does not necessarily mean that the offending student is an anti-Semite or racist.
4. One of the specific incidents discussed was the placement of posters advertising a slave auction in one of the schools as part of a curriculum unit on colonial America. Dr. Ramos explained that this was done to teach students not to sugarcoat American history and allow them to explore its darker side. We agreed on the importance of teaching sensitive and challenging parts of our history, rather than shy away from them, but stressed that this particular project was improper and offensive. The same lesson, we stated, could have been achieved by having students create posters that highlight, for example, the work of the abolitionist movement. So, while the intent of the teacher in this unit was admirable, the appearance of the posters may actually have fueled latent racist feelings, thus exacerbating the situation.
5. We spoke about the need for greater accuracy and transparency in official communication from the school administration. It was emphasized that parents and community members need and deserve to have the specific details of what has taken place, within the boundaries of what is legally permissible to share, as well as a better understanding of the thought process behind the response and next steps. We emphasized that school communication must be clear and unambiguous
It was agreed that there is still much work to be done to address the bias in our schools, and that a partnership between the school administration, clergy and parents is essential to that outcome. Toward that end, Dr. Ramos has scheduled a second meeting with the clergy to continue the conversation, and a Town Hall meeting will be held in early May to which all parents will be invited to express themselves and hear from Dr. Ramos and his staff.
We will continue to participate in this crucial dialogue and will report developments to you as they occur. Please feel free to contact us to express your concerns and ideas.
Rabbi Daniel M Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Rabbi Mark Cooper, Congregation Oheb Shalom
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Oheb Shalom Congregation