FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon Central Regional School District’s new Racism, Equity and Diversity Committee has pioneered a new group of student clubs aimed at inclusion and fostering cultural awareness.

In addition, two updates for school district policies were presented to the board for first reading, one for “Controversial Issues” and another for “Student Discipline.” The policies were discussed in relation to an apparent bias incident some Central students were involved in this year, and proceeded in concert with social justice and anti-racism conversations taking place nationally.

The committee was formalized in September, and board vice president, and committee chair, Noelle O’Donnell, delivered an update Monday on the committee’s recent meeting.

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“We’re excited to be doing this work, and representatives from different ethnic groups in our community participated,” she said. “We had members of the Black Families of Flemington group, students, parents and administrators. We learned a lot as we went in expecting to gain some help with the committee charter. We have a rough draft of goals, but parents quickly turned us to the direction of hearing from our students in the room. That proved wonderful, they are smart, courageous and strong kids, though they’re vulnerable people who let us know about some of their experiences and there were images and feelings we can equate to the committee’s work as we proceed.”

Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Moore said Hunterdon Central is looking at the newly introduced student clubs as a way to ensure the district is providing even more “safe spaces for students to share their experiences in the school community and to provide feedback to us on campus.”

An overarching goal, he said, is to develop new collaborations and programs to celebrate students’ cultures and the achievements of their diverse communities.

Moore spoke about the mix of parents, students, staff and community members who participated in the committee meeting.

“It was an evening of rich conversation, talking about student experiences and others in our community shared their experiences,” he said. “That really helped to establish ideas for the committee moving forward.”

“Tonight we have policy changes in student discipline and controversial issues, and we also have a recommendation to approve four new student unions which I want to point out, specifically with relation to the conversations we’ve held in this effort and work, a Latinx Alliance and a Black Student Union,” he added. “This is an exciting development for the district to provide these clubs and opportunities for our students to come together as they continue to grow, and the district has opportunities toward a broader celebration of cultures.”

Among the district’s advisor appointments approved, Evelyn Diaz was named as the Black Student Union advisor, and Tracy Axmann and Deborah Frank were confirmed as the Latinx Alliance Club advisors. The creation of Circolo Italiano: The Italian Culture Club of HCRHS was approved by the board, as was the appointment of its advisor Heather Cole.

In addition, the Competitive Programming Club was also approved Monday, as was its advisor appointment for Jane Armellino. Of note, Semira Markso was confirmed as advisor for the Multi-Cultural Club and Young Women of Color student unions. Thomas Heard was confirmed as advisor for the Muslim Students & Friends club.  
 
The district’s race, equity and diversity initiative, and approvals of assorted clubs, go beyond minority students sharing ideas and experiences with each other and staff. One of Hunterdon Central’s goals is finding opportunities to expand staff training in this key area.
 
“We will be increasing the staff’s literacy in and common language about racism, bias, prejudice and more,” Moore said. “In particular, with bias we talk about within a school district students and community members may be impacted by systemic bias or implicit bias. These are things we’ll continue to discuss and develop sharper.”

Teacher workshops held in June and August were designed to train educators on recognizing and evaluating racism and bias in school settings. Similar training will continue in the coming months.
 
“We want to make sure our HCRHS curriculum is conditioned to celebrate the contributions of individuals from all different communities, and also to equip students to stand against racism and hatred whenever or wherever it occurs,” Moore said. “This is all language the district already has and follows by law. It is a mission of our school and this is work we want to continue.”

Another diversity and inclusion goal outlined is for Hunterdon Central staff and administration to identify and support students through race-based traumatic stress. The district is collaborating with Rutgers University and other area partners to work with school counselors and ensure that Central has enough supports in place to engage and support students.

“Bias-related acts create trauma, they victimize people, even as a result just by witnessing it and having that take place in their community,” Moore said. “We have to recognize that as not just one moment, but to build support for any student who is going through anguish and trauma. School administrators have had many conversations over the years about trauma at the moment and its lasting effects."

One more goal for the committee and school administration is to recognize if and how students attending Central have different and possibly more negative experiences based on their backgrounds, and for the district to work on ways to close gaps when they find or identify system racism and bias.

“In particular, we’re looking into if people of minority and marginalized communities have different experiences at Central, and do they interact with rules and regulations differently,” Moore said. “Do we see evidence of our rules and regs treating people to different outcomes? Do we see disproportionalities in all the opportunities that we offer?”

In September, Moore shared data with the school board about disproportionality of students, according to race, in Hunterdon Central’s Honors, AP and other specialized courses.

“We are working to map that out further through each department at HCRHS, and to develop strategies to address specific gaps that we find in any department areas,” he said. “We are also working to make sure our practices in advising, course-placement and leveling processes and including discipline, attendance and all these efforts are in line to ensure we are providing equitable experience and equitable access to all of our district’s opportunities to each of our students, no matter their background. A lot of in-district work is underway to analyze our opportunity data and the outcomes in every one of Central’s departments to make sure we’re identifying gaps.”

He said he believes coming together in an interconnected way will be foundational blocks that help build Hunterdon Central’s spirit and a shared community identity going forward.

“We are interested in continuing to talk with students not only about how many separate student unions the district can charter, but also how these student unions might work together to create more connectivity and possibly more cultural celebrations,” he said.

O’Donnell noted the mission of hearing from the community and building relationships through the new committee’s meetings and efforts. The committee is working on plans for future roundtable-style events during the school year, though with safety protocols and distancing in place.

For now, the action items moving forward, including policy, signal more change and efforts at Hunterdon Central.

“One of the prime goals we have is to try to enlist people in this ongoing conversation,” O’Donnell said. “From the first meeting, we’ve seen good progress in two weeks with the creation of the Black Student Union and Latinx Alliance on our agenda, and we are looking at the two policies. As students share with us, this becomes the way for the district to know what work to do. We already have an existing policy for student discipline, but what we are learning is that the banner or umbrella is not big enough and not covering everyone. We are going to make sure that it does.”

“The second is an adjustment to the existing controversial issues policy,” she added. “There, we are looking at space where teachers would have moments and topics that come up for debate. We are updating policy as race or anti-racism are not debatable issues. We are making it clear that teachers are empowered to make decisions in our classrooms and to make good decisions as part of the policy, and racism is not really up for debate.”

The two district policies will come up for final adoption by the board of education at its November meeting. The new student activities’ clubs were enacted by the board’s vote on Monday.