FLEMINGTON, NJ - In continuing efforts to raise the school community’s awareness and propel strategic conversations about race relations, social justice and combating bias, the Hunterdon Central Regional High School board of education approved two new policies, as updates about district initiatives and the newly-formed Racism, Equity and Diversity Committee were presented.

Hunterdon Central Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeffrey Moore explained that the board’s approval of the Pupil Discipline Policy change allows the district to take a “no-tolerance stance against bias incidents.”

The Pupil Discipline Policy change comes months after a controversial incident in summer 2020 when two Hunterdon Central students were identified in a photograph spread online, mocking the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police.

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“This approval moves bias-related acts (by students) from whatever tier of discipline the act currently sits in to Tier 4 consequences,” he said. “At Level 4, a disciplinary infraction results in a suspension from school typically of between five to 10 days, and it can bring further consequences in certain circumstances, ultimately leading to even expulsion from the school.”

School board vice president Noelle O’Donnell, who chairs the new committee, spoke about its last meeting held Nov. 3. Preceding that, on Oct. 29, there was an in-person event with the extended committee, including community partners at the HCRHS cafeteria, which drew good feedback and sparked plans for more outreach. The committee also works closely with the Hunterdon Central Education Association (HCEA) leadership for initiatives, and the association has a similar subcommittee to the district’s.

“We had representation from the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition and Harrison Dillard, chair of the Civil Rights & Diversity Committee, who gave us information of the local Hunterdon chapter of the NAACP, as well as his takeaways from his work with law enforcement agencies on issues of bias,” O’Donnell said. “We continue working with the HCEA to see where our committees’ work can really join together.

Moore added that from the discussions with the HCEA, professional development regarding anti-bias and anti-racism support is an area “where the district and HCEA may be able to do a lot of great work together.”

O’Donnell noted plans for the next extended committee meeting to include legal expertise “to go over issues of what is and what is not possible under the law when it comes to bias, and what the school district’s role is.”

She made the motion for the board to approve the two policies, including the updated Pupil Discipline Policy and Controversial Issues, which were discussed in-detail and had their first readings at the Oct. 19 school board meeting. Both updated policies were unanimously approved.

In addition to his comments on the Pupil Discipline Policy, Moore briefly explained the Controversial Issues Policy change.

“All districts have this policy, and this governs how teachers talk about and deal with controversial issues in the classroom,” he said. “It reiterates that racism is not a controversial issue that is debatable in Central’s classrooms, and rather it is a legal mandate for our teachers to teach and to work toward equipping our students to stand against hatred, wherever and whenever they find it.”

Staff training for diversity and inclusion initiatives were discussed, as the board approved professional development programming around bias and anti-racism.

According to the superintendent, the goal is for Central is “to achieve full literacy across the board and ensure that staff members are ready to respond as effectively as possible, in the moment if bias or racism ever occurs, in the interest of students’ safety and growth here at Central.”

“With all the trainings on tonight’s agenda, as well as previously-approved staff trainings that we’ve done over the summer and through fall, we will have trained 115 staff members on these very topics from bias and prejudice to ‘microaggression,’ understanding and recognizing instances of racism and responding in a classroom, when anything might come up in a class setting,” he added. “The district is also working with consultants to organize mandatory training for all HCRHS staff, as 115 is a lot, but not everybody in the district.”

Another area of focus for training district staff has been race-based traumatic stress. Central’s counseling staff and child study team specialists, among other personnel, have been working with Rutgers University professionals to help ensure they are supporting students who may be suffering from ongoing stress related to bias acts and other concerns.

Moore added that with the retirement of Dolores Jablonski, HR operational assistant in schools’ administration, as well as a change in jobs for operational assistant Paula Graham and creation of different HR roles, the district had identified a good opportunity to increase diversity in its staff. The HCRHS board voted to approve the creation of an assistant manager of human resources position, as well as creating an HR specialist role (though this is the renaming of a current position Central has).

The Board simultaneously voted to eliminate the previous position of operational assistant to the HR manager that Jablonski held.
 
“On the job descriptions and job changes for tonight’s agenda, we are taking advantage of some changes in our HR department, including (Jablonski’s) retirement, as well as a change for our HR assistant moving up to become Suzanne Cooley’s secretary,” Moore said. “We have two open HR positions, which gives us the opportunity, despite missing those folks, we have the chance for some restructuring and meeting some of the larger demands the office is facing.”

In particular, he said the creation of an assistant HR manager position gives Hunterdon Central more day-to-day operational management and allows the HR department more resources to ballast wellness opportunities for staff in expanding its work as part of Central’s employee assistance program.

“It allows us to make sure on this very large campus that we’re present across the campus for employees and able to offer them all the resources and supports they need at this tough time and going forward in schools, as we struggle with disengagement among kids and struggle with issues that sort of shake us to our core,” he said. “There is a moment to see where we can offer additional support and encouragement to our teachers. And we also see an opportunity to expand our Racism, Equity and Diversity work directly out to our staff as well and to achieve goals in the diversification of our staff through this change.”

Jablonski worked in the district’s HR department for more than 14 years.

“She sat across from my office and I’ve seen her quite a bit, and Dolores was one of the first folks at the office who welcomed me aboard,” Moore said.

Approved on Oct. 19 were two new diversity-oriented student unions, the Black Student Union and Latinx Alliance. Moore said that both groups have been active, “charting their course and chartering their purposes around providing safe spaces, providing a sense of community and also being places in which our students can give feedback to us.”

He said it remains a goal for the groups to help both students and Central’s faculty and administrators, “so that we get all the information we need to ensure that we’re as responsive as possible to each of our students’ needs.”