MONTCLAIR, NJ - Several Montclair parents and advocates have called for the immediate resignation of Superintendent Nathan Parker after he was alleged to have made remarks regarding employing racist teachers.
During the Montclair Board of Education meeting that took place on Wednesday, Parker apologized for his remarks which, according to parents, took place during an NAACP education committee meeting.
During the Montclair NAACP meeting, parents have alleged that Parker made comments about not addressing matters regarding racist teachers. During a second NAACP meeting that Parker attended, some parents further allege that Parker stated that he felt comfortable around black people because he grew up on a dairy farm where his family employed four black families. These comments were seen by some as insensitive and pacifying, according to advocates, who subsequently began circulating commentary on social media and speaking publicly.
Community advocate and representative of the National Independent Black Parents' Association (NIBPA), Kellia Sweat paraphrased Parker's alleged comments during the Wednesday Board meeting. Another parent June Raegner echoed that she heard the comments, as well.
Sweat clarified the comments that she has raised at prior Board meetings, stating, "Dr. Parker has already admitted to saying that he does not have a problem if a teacher is found to be racist, as long as it doesn't disrupt instruction."
Prior to Sweat approaching the podium, Parker had addressed his commentary by reading aloud a prepared statement and apology. He said:
"I've been asked by our Board members to clarify an issue recently raised at several meetings and within the community. At a meeting of the NAACP education subcommittee, I was asked a question. My response was interpreted as supporting racism in teachers. I want to reiterate tonight that I, in no way, support racism in any form. What I attempted to speak about was the inevitable presence of bias in the school environment and how it can be addressed and reduced through strong educational systems and hiring practices. I do not support or condone racism in any form. It is regrettable that my comments were heard to mean the opposite. I have been involved with fighting injustice and supporting equity for students as a school leader, for more than 50 years and I will continue to do so. I offer to speak personally with anyone who was offended. That offer still stands and I invite you to contact me for a personal appointment. The upcoming conversations on race sponsored by our educational foundation, is an event I will attend to further understand racial injustice in Montclair. It has been my pleasure to come to the Montclair School District and learn more about its history and development. Part of that history includes deep wounds over segregation and the lack of educational and equitable access and opportunity. I did not intend to cause more harm or open old wounds by my comments. I seek to be involved in healing past practices and improving our schools and will continue to work in that endeavor. I am sorry that my words may have been misinterpreted and I appreciate the opportunity to explain my intent. Thank you for allowing me to clarify."
During the meeting, parents also called for equitable busing for students in the South End of town. Since the South End has been known to house a greater number of minority students, parents are concerned that the reasoning for not providing busing to South End students, is racially biased.
Pluchet Alexander has been vocal in advocating for equitable busing. She stated, during the meeting that she has yet to receive a response from school district officials on busing or the public bus tickets the district agreed to provide to students.
Alexander and other parents supporting South End busing have expressed that students who live to Upper Montclair are bused to school and question why the services have not been extended to all Montclair students living 2-miles away from Montclair High School. In addition, concerns have been raised for the safety of students crossing Bloomfield Avenue.
After addressing busing, one parent commented on Parker's alleged commentary, stating, "I am pretty appalled that someone, at his level, education, poise and intelligence, would make such statements. It is not okay to sit here tonight and ramble off some little written speech and make us feel that it is okay, that now we can settle down."
The mom went further to express that she doesn't mind standing outside the Board office with a sign to demonstrate her dissatisfaction. "We are a diverse community. We expect better."
Sweat added, "I came here to this Board meeting several times, making it clear that racism is a weapon. I want to make it clear, there is no rationalizing racism. You never rationalize racism. When someone makes it clear to you that they're okay with racism, or even if-and I'm not buying it-but even if someone is that reckless, to speak words like that in an institution, you're automatically bringing harm to the most vulnerable children. Children of African descent."
Sweat has spoken publicly to the Board on numerous instances to ask Board members to address Parker's commentary. She stated, "I stood here several times and each on of you remained silent when I asked 'Do you have a problem if Dr. Parker made that statement?' Not one of you spoke up at that time."
She continued, "The National Independent Black Parent Association is calling for your immediate resignation, Dr. Parker." Sweat went further to express that since Parker is temporary, that she feels he should not be touching things pertaining to equity.
Karita DeFreece spoke about a prior Board meeting in which, she states, "After the meeting was adjourned, a Board member called out, Can someone please call the police because I feel threatened." DeFreece stated that this call for police came after parents had not signed the sheet, but wanted to speak. After a boisterous exchange between community members calling out and the Board trying to maintain order, the parent was then allowed to speak. DeFreece said, "It was only when other black parents came to her defense, that she, as well as her community, was given an opportunity to speak." This is extremely dangerous because historically as well as presently, the police don't always respond in a friendly manner...when persons of color are involved."
She added, "Black parents were immediately criminalized when we spoke against racism."
My son, who is autistic, was bullied here in this district. Not only was he bullied, but I was bullied multiple times into making decisions for my son that I didn't agreed with. So, it is clear that black families need some type of protection and support within this district."
She echoed the sentiments expressed by other speakers saying, "We are calling for Dr. Nathan Parker's immediate resignation."
Raegner, who was present during both NAACP meetings, stated that she had heard Parker's comments.
She spoke saying, "You then apologized to people for misunderstanding your words. Please understand that an apology for other people's misunderstanding, is not an apology."
"You owe this community and actual apology. I disagree with the characterization of your remarks." She stated that Parker characterization of his comments differ from the accounts of parents present during the meeting. Raegner added, "I disagree with the characterization of your remarks. In fact, they were so different than what I heard and many other people here heard, it's insulting. I would suggest, that anyone who speaks with you in the future, records their conversation. I'm so disappointed."
"At the time you made the remarks, you proudly prefaced them by saying you knew your comments would be controversial and unpopular. It seemed, at the time, as though, at least at a minimum, own them," she added.
"You then said, that you did not have a problem, with teachers being racist, as long as they did not behave in a racist manner in the classroom. You did not discuss the harms of bias. You talked about teaching excellence for all students being the best way to close the achievement gap."
You questioned the value of current programs aiming at closing the A-Gap. When asked if you would commit to minority recruitment given the lack of diversity in Montclair's teaching staff, you responded saying you would hire the best person for the job. And we all know what that's code for."
"You said that you would not support the role of a student advocate and you have moved him out of his office. You declined to fulfilling the recommendations of the Montclair achievement gap. Now, tonight, you said, you don't think racism has a place, you need to act like it."
Other speakers echoed similar concerns regarding Parker's alleged comments, with several of those, calling for Parker's resignation.
New interim NAACP education committee chair, Diane Anglin spoke to introduce herself. She did not touch upon the issues raised by parents, as she has recently assumed the role and stated that they were gathering information.
"In all honesty, I was not made aware of the specifics of the statements that were made. The position of the NAACP, from Mr. Pelham, is that he is going to release a statement after gathering all of this information," Anglin said.
At the close of the meeting, Board members had little to say. Vice President Latifah Jannah stated that she wanted to clarify, despite rumors, that she was not present during Parker's alleged comments at the NAACP meeting.
"People who were at that meeting have decided not to speak up to correct that, so I wanted to take this opportunity to correct it that I was not present at the meeting when the comments were said."
Jessica de Koninck followed saying, "I don't read the stuff on social media, that a lot of people who were not at the meeting and did not hear what was said...and have said all sorts of things about what might have been said and what might not have been said and drawn all sorts of conclusions and then want Board members to comment on their conclusions, as if they were true and I'm done with it. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of having our meetings turn into circuses. We are here....for children....and we are not here to have our time wasted and that's what these meetings have devolved into."
After de Koninck's circus statement, parents and community members began yelling from the audience, so much so, that President Eve Robinson declined to comment and adjourned the meeting.
"I had some comments to make, but since the meeting has devolved, I'm not gonna make the comments," Robinson added.
The next meeting of the Montclair Board of Education will take place on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 at 7:30pm.