WEST ORANGE, NJ — As a result of the movement started by the West Orange Youth Caucus’ Black Lives Matter protest on June 6 in response to the murder of George Floyd, the wheels were finally set in motion to force the township to begin to have difficult conversations about racism and racial injustice.
Last Thursday, town council member Cindy Matute-Brown responded to the need for conversation by organizing a town hall to address West Orange's "Needs for a More Racially Inclusive Township."
Moderated by the West Orange School District’s Diversity, Equity and Access Committee member Dr. David E. Jones, the township's elected officials and West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone, were invited to engage in dialogue and answer a series of questions on a variety of topics posed by community during a virtual question and answer session held both on Zoom and Facebook Live.
Many of the questions were focused on implicit bias training for both elected officials and township employees.
After attending a recent Human Relations Commission (HRC) meeting, Mayor Robert Parisi realized that although the police and fire department and other township employees do undergo bias training, it needed to be bolstered “both in how often they’re subjected to it and developing a much more comprehensive plan for employees to be required to participate in.”
Community members also pointed out that township elected officials do not need to undergo training, which prompted the mayor to propose an ordinance requiring training for elected officials, which will be introduced at the upcoming town council meeting on June 23.
Parisi elaborated on what the training would look like, explaining that the township is developing training not only from the perspective of adults, but also from the perspective of high school students and teenagers.
This, Parisi said, is to “ensure that every interaction residents have with employees is handled in an appropriate way and that if something is not handled in the appropriate way, we have the means to address it.”
On the other hand, according to the WOPS superintendent, the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) has undergone training earlier in the school year and will participate in a summer retreat. District administrators also participated in a six-part equity leadership network, through the Rutgers Institute for Improving Student Achievement. District Staff were also scheduled to have professional development (PD) on May 15, but it was cancelled due to school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cascone added the upcoming school year’s PD will have a “deliberate focus” on implicit bias, microaggressions, and understanding false historical narratives.
Another question posed by the community was about the status of the Christopher Columbus monument, currently located at the intersection of Valley Road, Quimby Place and Kingsley Street. As of June 13, Mayor Robert Parisi announced on Facebook that the monument would be removed after many residents called for its removal.
On Thursday, the mayor explained that he would speak with the group involved with supporting and maintaining the monument, but he saw that it was clear that “what Christopher Columbus means today is not what he meant to the community in the 90s [or] before that.”
In the future, Parisi said that he is prepared to have a discussion with the community to come up with a better representation of the township.
Many of the questions posed by the community focused on the demands raised by the West Orange Youth Caucus which centered around police protocol, use of force, and oversight of Internal Affairs investigations.
When asked about the other ordinances that the mayor submitted to the town council for approval including banning chokeholds, banning the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and requiring police officers to wear body cams, all council members voiced their support.
“I one-hundred percent support all of the ordinances that were presented on the petition,” Matute-Brown said. “I want to see what type of language is included to make sure that the ordinance reflects with fidelity the demands that were made.”
“We have yet to see them,” said Council President Michelle Casalino. “They have to get reviewed by legal and so we’ll have them next week in our packet before the June 23 meeting, [but I] look forward to having the conversation and moving forward.”
West Orange Police Department (WOPD) Chief James Abbott was pressed several times throughout the town hall about the specifics surrounding the development of an independent civilian review board, which ideally would have oversight in Internal Affairs investigations.
Abbott explained that even though the attorney general just “released the ability for civilian review boards (CRBs)” to be created as of April 1, they are “not mandated.”
Abbott added that the CRB would not have direct oversight on ongoing cases, but “they can review cases after the fact.”
“I would like to see young people on it,” Abbott said. “I would like to see communities of color and I want to see people who are going to challenge us. I don’t want or need somebody who’s going to patronize us or tell us what a great job we do … or it’s just an exercise in futility.”
Under the guidelines provided by the attorney general, Matute-Brown said that it would “take some time” to create the review board, but she is looking forward to working out the parameters with her council colleagues.
Some community members also raised concerns about a recent use of force report originally reported by NJ.com showing that between 2012 and 2016, 43-percent of motor stops are of a black citizen and a black person is 29-percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person.
Jones pointed out that these percentages are “disproportionate” and a “growing concern” for the West Orange community 27-percent of which is African American, based off 2010 U.S. Census data.
Abbott responded that the use of force data could be “misleading,” because most of the people arrested by the WOPD are not West Orange residents and because each officer involved in the arrest must fill out a report.
“So, what looks like 20 instances could be five or six,” Abbott said. NJ Advance Media also wrote a disclaimer on the force report page stating that there might be inaccuracies in the data collected although every effort was taken to standardize the data and not introduce errors.
“We review every use of force instant [and] it’s reviewed by the Essex County prosecutor,” Abbott said. “I’m pleased to report to you that we haven’t had any incidents.”
Another growing concern among community members is around the diverse representation of teachers within the district.
Out of approximately 2,000 students at the West Orange High School (WOHS), 46-percent are African American. According to Jones, current school district data reveals that black teachers are significantly underrepresented, and many community members were concerned about the elimination of a guidance counselor position previously held by Michael DuBose, the only African American male guidance counselor at WOHS.
Cascone agreed that there is a disparity between the representation of black and Hispanic staff members and the number of students represented within the community.
Cascone said that the current breakdown of students from K-through-12 is 37-percent black, 32-percent Hispanic, 19-percent white, seven percent are two or more races and five percent Asian.
“So clearly our distribution of our staff is not aligned with that,” he said.
However, Cascone also mentioned at another point in the discussion that with the help of the newly revamped Diversity, Equity, and Access in Committee, the district had a total of 52 new hires of certificated staff, made up of 10 black, 10 Hispanic, four Asian, two multiracial, and 26 white staff members.
In response to DuBose’s cut position, Cascone said that when new hires also happen to be diverse candidates, they are always going to be at higher risk to be released due to fiscal concerns than tenured staff members even though they are strong performers.
“I think the Board very much understands the importance of role models, especially the importance of black men, and not just as role models and mentors for our young black students, but for our white kids as well,” said WOBOE President Ken Alper. “I think it’s very important for our white students to see black men and women … succeeding in roles of authority as teachers, as principles, as coaches.”
Casalino agreed saying that having role models could enable students to “become teachers,” “become police officers,” and eventually be role models for future generations.
She added that when she was a school board member, she was able to help promote several people in administrative positions including WOHS Principal Hayden Moore, Roosevelt Middle School Principal Lionel Hush, and WOHS Assistant Principals Leslie Chung and Annette Towson.
WOBOE Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales added that more important than recruiting people of color is retention.
“It’s often difficult for candidates of color to come into a school district that is very diverse without some support,” she said. “We need to make sure that we are mentoring our new hires black or white.”
In the future, Cascone mentioned that with the help of the Diversity Committee, the district will continue to network with other institutions including Kean University, William Patterson, Montclair State University and Fairleigh Dickenson, which is affiliated with AICUNJ.
Later in the meeting, Chief Abbott was asked to report on the WOPD’s relationship with Ring, a video doorbell system owned by Amazon, which according to Jones “arguably perpetuates disproportional police targeting and harassment of black people.”
Abbott explained that the agreement with the township allows residents with a ring doorbell to upload any type of video to the ring portal, which will be sent to the attention of the police. Since entering into that agreement, “it hasn’t produced anything that would be of concern,” Abbott said, adding there have not been disproportional interviews, arrests, or charges.
“It’s been pretty useless,” he said.
“If we are serious about working to eradicate racism and racist policies in this township, if we want to lead, [we] should not participate in any function that might endanger the life of someone simply because they fit the profile” Matute-Brown said, adding that Ring participates in a system that oppresses and marginalizes people since it will be entering a contract with ICE, helping to scan people of color.
“If we want to move forward, we have to intentionally disentangle ourselves from all racist policies,” she said. “I think that it [the agreement] should be removed, especially if it’s of no consequence. It hasn’t helped one way or the other.”
At the conclusion of the town hall, Jones asked all the panelists in attendance how they will hold themselves accountable when responding to the sentiments expressed by the community.
“I think accountability comes from deeper within one,” Cascone said, explaining that as an educator he works hard to serve every child in the WOPS district as if they were his own child.
“For me, holding myself accountable is coming up with plans challenging my council and my my mayor and our chief,” Matute-Brown said, adding that the township needs to do more to attract potential hires to the WOPD and the elevate the wealth of the black community.
In addition to implicit bias training, Matute-Brown said that the township needs to have interventions, including creating a “database that tracks tickets and citations, arrests, code violations” and note what communities are impacted.
Councilman Joe Krakoviak added that a “long-term infrastructure” or body needs to be created to listen to the needs of residents which need to be considered and addressed and come up with potential solutions.”
“If the HRC isn’t the right body and if it can’t be modified or if we want to create an additional body, I think that has to be on the list of to-dos going forward so that this gets implemented in the long-term,” he said.
“I think it has been extremely evident tonight, that our community wants more,” Trigg-Scales said about Thursday’s town hall. “We want to hear their voices and we need to certainly hold ourselves accountable…
“This is a beginning,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”