MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The members of the MAPSO Youth Coalition — a group of current and former South Orange Maplewood School District students organizing for anti-racism — can’t pinpoint the exact moment they coalesced, though discussions began when a group of Columbia High School graduates attended a Newark protest honoring George Floyd in late May. After observing demands for systemic change throughout the country, the Coalition members decided to take on their own community. In addition to promoting protests for racial justice, the group recognized the need for a Student Bill of Rights that addresses the specific disparities within Maplewood and South Orange, including segregated classrooms and transportation challenges for students of color.

“In figuring out how we can join together as students to actually impact our community and make these things that are being talked about around the country happen in our town, we realized that’s where we really have power,” said Coalition member Jordan Muhammad, 18. 

The Coalition has already organized three events: its first was a Juneteenth in collaboration with SOMA Justice, where children crafted North Stars and wrote about what freedom means to them. On July 1, they launched an Essex County freeholder candidate town hall — the live discussion, “What on earth is a county freeholder and which one should I vote for,” aimed to prepare young voters for the upcoming July 7 New Jersey primary. The event was co-hosted by the West Orange Youth Caucus, an organization that Muhammad said partly inspired the MAPSO Youth Coalition. The Caucus recently called for city government accountability measures like an independent civilian review board. And this past Saturday they had a walk and rally on July 4th.

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Many of the Coalition members have previously participated in social justice-oriented clubs through CHS and organized protests together, fostering a sense of community even before its formal creation. And although SOMSD students and families have long pursued action, recent revolts against police brutality have sparked particularly urgent community discussions, said Sylvie Schuetz, 17.

“Something that’s super clear in MAPSO among the young people is that there is a want for community and action, especially right now, because it’s always been like that,” Schuetz said. “But I definitely think people have almost a hunger to move beyond performative activism, which is very rampant at this moment.”

These discussions include the inaugural Coalition meeting held on June 11. Among the participants was Community Coalition on Race Trustee and local organizer Rhea Mokund-Beck, who laid out the benefits of drafting a Student Bill of Rights. Created for and by the students, the document will present a clear vision for the administration to accomplish; it will center on Columbia High School but apply to the entire district, though Columbia is a “major problem,” Muhammad said.

“At this particular moment in American history, I can’t think of anything more exciting than students understanding their rights and in doing so demanding recognition and real partnership from the school administration,” Mokund-Beck said.

The Student Bill of Rights will purposefully avoid any mention of specific policies, but rather focus on the injustices that the SOMSD administration and elected local officials must resolve — it is not the responsibility of young people to actually implement these changes, the Coalition noted.

“That’s not our job,” a Coalition member said. “That’s the jobs of the politicians in power and our local government. That is the job of the Board of Education members that have the voting ability to change the inequities we see in our school district...it shouldn’t only rely on us.”

Though the Board of Education recently voted to advance its SOMSD Intentional Integration Initiative, the plan will mainly affect elementary- and middle school-aged students in its first stages. The MAPSO Youth Coalition emphasized the immediate need for solutions at Columbia High School, particularly because the district claims to celebrate diversity.

Jessica Holdbrook, 16, said she was initially excited to join SOMSD when she was in elementary school; her family had moved into the district because of its positive reputation. She hoped that she’d feel welcome at school, though her experience didn’t live up to her expectations; Holdbrook, who is Black, said she has received unequal treatment because of her race.

“[The administration] doesn’t realize how broken this district is,” Holdbrook said. “I think the reason why the MAPSO Youth Coalition was made is we’re trying to fix it, even though they’re adults, and they should know what’s going wrong.”

The Bill of Rights will highlight both everyday microaggressions and broader structural disparities impacting students of color. The former include discriminatory remarks by teachers, which dozens of current and former students have described on the @blackatsomsd Instagram account. Many of these posts claim that teachers and guidance counselors have discouraged nonwhite students from enrolling in higher-level courses — despite the 2015 Access & Equity Policy that aimed to remove barriers from Honors or Advanced Placement classes. 

In 2017, white students composed less than half of Columbia High School’s enrollment but filled 64 percent of Advanced Placement courses — while Black students filled 22 percent of these classes, according to an analysis by ProPublica. Throughout the district, white students made up more than 80 percent of the Gifted and Talented program. Often one of the few Black individuals in high-level classes, one Coalition member said that it’s “degrading” to know that other nonwhite students aren’t afforded the same opportunities, sometimes due to the lingering effects of elementary and middle school standardized testing.

“I’m tired of being a token minority in high-level classes within a school district that has a racially diverse population,” the member said. 

Increasing the proportion of students of color within advanced courses is a “high priority” for the Board of Education, said Superintendent Ronald Taylor at the June 22 BOE meeting, though he hasn’t yet offered further details.

Disciplinary actions also vary widely based on race: Black SOMSD students are 5.3 times more likely to receive suspensions than their white peers. Students of color are frequently punished for arriving late to Columbia High School because they tend to live farther, Coalition members said. The district’s geographic disparities, which have historically affected elementary school demographics, have received national attention since the Intentional Integration Initiative began.

Students have also urged the administration to adjust the SOMSD curriculum and feature more historical achievements by people of color, rather than simply prioritizing oppression and struggles. This past December, CHS student Bryn Healy advocated for the removal of the required AP United States Government and Politics textbook, which “defended racial profiling.” Superintendent Taylor affirmed in January that the district approved curriculum changes that include connections to the New Jersey Amistad Commission and is “very proud of our commitment to anti-bias, anti-racist, and culturally inclusive education.” 

Going forward, the MAPSO Youth Coalition hopes to expand its membership by adding more middle school representatives, as well as connecting with students throughout New Jersey; they have already met virtually with youth organizers from Millburn and Elizabeth, Muhammad said.

The Coalition is still brainstorming the Student Bill of Rights and will look to examples like Emory University’s 2019 resolution, which ensures “equal opportunity and access” for every student. They’ll also model it based on input from SOMA community organizers, teachers and administrators. 

Though she feels it’s “frustrating” that it must be written, Muhammad credited Superintendent Taylor and Board of Education President Annemarie Maini for their support in the process so far. “There are some good people in the administration and in town who want to see change and know what’s going on, but it’s complicated,” she said. “We want to do our part to help push things.”

The MAPSO Youth Coalition can be reached at mapsoyouthcoalition@gmail.com, or at their Instagram account, @mapsoyouthco.

 

 

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