UNION COUNTY, NJ — Law enforcement officials need to listen to the voices of young people to effectively respond to and prevent hate crimes and incidents of bias among youth, community leaders said at a roundtable with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office earlier this month.

The Honorable Leland McGee, head of Scotch Plains-based Social Justice Matters, Danielle West-Augustin, Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Queen City Academy Charter School in Plainfield and recent college graduate and childcare counselor Keon Candia, of Linden, gave Acting Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo feedback on recommendations in a 2020 task force report about bias among youth.

In the report, the Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias recommends changing school curricula to incorporate anti-racism, expanding anti-bias training to state educators, addressing racial disparities in school discipline and toughening New Jersey’s criminal hate laws.

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Children and young adults make up a disproportionate number of both victims of bias incidents and offenders in New Jersey, according to a 2019 report released by the office of state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the state police and state Division of Civil Rights that recorded 994 reported incidents of bias that year — a 75% rise from the number reported the year before.

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In these incidents, individuals are intimidated “because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity,” Ruotolo said.

At the roundtable, Ruotolo said 25% of bias incidents in 2019 occurred in K-12 schools. While Ruotolo said 53% of offenders in bias incidents in 2018 were ages 25 and under, the youngest participant spoke about an incident where police pulled over and drew weapons on unarmed Black students when he attended Montclair State University.

Candia, 26, said students should be able to recognize bias at a young age, and classes that help them recognize it should be taken early on. By the time students get to college, he said, bias is often already embedded in their thinking and with a lack of support from university institutions, students have to “be their own therapy” when bias incidents happen.

The participants encouraged the prosecutor to reach out to and incorporate more feedback from younger people, describing work and outreach they had done in their communities as examples.

West-Augustin said the Plainfield charter school she leads has held focus groups with students from kindergarten through eighth grade and is rewriting the curriculum to be more culturally relevant.

“We have begun to take a look at the students we’re educating, where are their stories being told and where their story is not being told,” she said.

McGee said a “human-centered” approach to education must transcend individual initiatives by emphasizing students’ common humanity.

In the Joint Committee for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, which McGee founded, students have a forum to talk about their racialized experience with the mayors of Scotch Plains and Fanwood and the superintendent of the public school district that serves both towns.

The leaders were united in telling the prosecutor the anti-bias task force report doesn’t go far enough.

West-Augustin said the report could have been more thorough in naming past history and “the real systematic horrors that have taken place and how we ended up here.”

Agreeing, McGee said, “I just don't think that it goes far enough to envision the cultural change that we need to create not only in education but in law enforcement.”

West-Augustin said the report stops short at holding politicians fully accountable, as it mentions holding them responsible for their rhetoric, but not for their legislation.

“We’ve got to make sure from a systemic perspective that we are really preparing and changing systems from what they have been to what they should be,” she said.

Candia encouraged more active involvement in helping youth engage positively on social media. Educators who become more adept at social media proactively beyond taking students’ phones away “will be able to reach them at a young age, show them the right way,” he said.

Ruotolo said she can seek student feedback on the report and recruited the participants to work on virtual forums in which youth from their communities can take in information from the report and share their thoughts.

She encouraged victims of or witnesses to hate crimes or bias incidents to contact police or anonymously report bias incidents directly to the Division of Civil Rights, which can be done through the division’s online portal.