MONTCLAIR, NJ - During the regular meeting of the Montclair NAACP education committee on Thursday, committee chair James Harris seemed shocked to learn that the Montclair Public Schools' Equity Department was dismantled under the leadership of Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker. Consequently, Harris and committee members pressed to inquire further about why the department and positions were abolished.
During the virtual presentation, other topics were discussed, including the recent video shown by embattled Principal Joseph Putrino during the district-wide convocation on Wednesday. In addition, invited guest, Interim Principal of Montclair High School, Terry Trigg-Scales, was in attendance to answer any questions.
Special guest, Montclair High School Interim Principal Trigg-Scales, was invited back to the district after former MHS principal Anthony Grosso left the district. She spoke during the meeting held on Zoom, and had been asked to share details of the remote learning plan. Though not on the agenda, Trigg-Scales was also asked for her opinion of the video shown by Putrino, that many labeled as offensive.
“I was offended and I won’t go any further than that. I don’t want to talk about a colleague,” she said.
“Dr. Putrino, as president of the Montclair Principals Association, as part of his welcome, showed a video of a Black father ranting, saying disparaging things about his own children. He was praising teachers, couldn’t believe teachers put up with all these things. The implied message was teachers getting praised, but it was rather offensive to use in that setting,” she said.
As part of a virtual convocation presentation by Putrino to Montclair School staff, the video was shown of comedian Josh Pray talking about challenges he faced homeschooling his children while on COVID-19 lockdown. Shortly thereafter, the comments from staff started to fill up due to outrage. Staff were offended by the delivery of Pray's message and what they perceived as a 'negative stereotype of a black man." Some parents, community members likened Pray's performance to a 'black minstrel show' or other vaudeville depictions of blacks.
Superintendent Johnathan Ponds called for the tech staff to cut the video short and interrupted Putrino’s presentation. Putrino and Ponds immediately apologized to the staff.
After the presentation was halted, staff took to social media to express outrage and then the NAACP issued a statement calling for immediate action. By the end of the same day, Putrino was removed from his position as Principal and a replacement announced.
Trigg-Scales, who is a retired Montclair Principal and current Board member in West Orange, said she is only scheduled to serve in the interim capacity through the end of October. She last served as an interim principal at the high school in 2018, prior to the hiring of Anthony Grosso, who has since left to take a position in Cedar Grove.
She informed the group that the first two days of school would be an alternative schedule with an extended homeroom that would allow for wellness checks. In accordance with was has been announced from the Superintendent, the District is expected to follow a remote schedule that will consist of A and B days set up with four blocks each with breaks in between and a hour for lunch. During the last period, office hours are set up for students to reach out to teachers with questions.
She stated that it is best to ease into learning, saying, “All the research shows we can’t jump right into academics. Everyone is traumatized by the pandemic, by racial unrest, social injustice.”
This homeroom time would be used to help students review schedules, participate in ice-breakers, receive remote learning tips and make connections. She added that there would be additional check-ins at the beginning of each new marking period.
MHS senior and NAACP Youth Council President Genesis Whitlock, was also a part of the meeting. She was congratulated, as she will now be serving as the first student representative to the Montclair Board of Education. She will serve in her official capacity starting September 21.
The need for a continuance of the restorative justice initiative, was mentioned. Trigg-Scales explained her passion for focusing on equity, climate and culture, “three areas near and dear” to her heart. Questions asked, reffered to Instagram posts by Montclair High School students that outline their experiences with racism and bias from staff and students. To which Trigg-Scales responded, that it was important to pay attention to what students are saying.
“Our students feeling that way has to be addressed,” she added.
She also mentioned that she plans on meeting with the small learning communities at the High school to ensure that the discomfort students of color are highlighting in those spaces, must be addressed. In particular, the CGI and CSJ departments have been highlighted by students as areas of concern, as students have taken notice that Civics & Government Institute (CGI) and Center for Social Justice (CSJ) have predominately white student populations therein.
On collaborating with staff to address student concerns, Trigg-Scales said, “We are meeting to talk about that and taking a fresh look at those small learning communities, and whether they should be reimagined or redesigned."
During the meeting, before concluding, it was decided that the NAACP will collaborate with other community groups to discuss the student equity positions and Equity Department being abolished and to push to reinstate the department and or positions.
This revelation came after Harris asked for member Lisa Rollins to report on Title 1 programs in the district. Rollins responded that her position was abolished when Parker and the current Board did away with the department.
Shocked, Harris asked for clarity. As if for the first time hearing of the Board's decision to abolish the equity department, he and other members pushed to obtain more information from the new superintendent.
"I think it is important for us to reach out to the groups that have been in the forefront," NAACP member Abraham Dickerson said.
He and others made mention of Kellia Sweatt and the work that she has been doing for the past year to bring awareness of Parker and the Board's actions to abolish the student equity positions. Dickerson continued to express the reasons why he felt the need to invite Sweatt into the forefront of the conversation, saying that she "put their heart and tears into this...to the point where the police are called to intimidate them."
Sweatt, who is President of the Montclair Chapter of the National Independent Black Parents' Association, has devoted much of her time in advocating for equity for children of African descent in Montclair and surrounding areas. She has been locked into a very public battle with the Board over the decision to abolish the department and positions, such as that of the Student Equity Advocate Joseph Graham.
For nearly six months Sweatt has been questioning the Board and former Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker to explain why Graham was terminated from the Montclair School District on March 5 without explanation to the community. Graham has since alleged that his termination had followed multiple harassing incidents from Parker, including moving him out of his office and telling him to meet with parents to discuss confidential equity matters, in the Montclair Public Library.
Sweatt has publicly stated that her organization was instrumental in creating the Montclair School District's Department of Equity, as well as Graham's position.
In a recent interview, Sweatt stated, "The reason for that position, was to destroy the process of the school-to-prison pipeline [and] attacks on black boys. We were successful in making that happen, but we were not successful in maintaining it," Sweatt stated.
"Recently, we had an Interim Superintendent by the name of Nathan Parker, who along with the current Board, pretty much stripped all of the work that we had done. Now they are in the process of sanitizing themselves, so they can get on the right side of history," she added, during that prior interview last week.
Between October 2019 and February of 2020, Montclair School District officials had also publicly been at the center of controversy since statements made by the Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker during an NAACP education committee meeting were made public.
Sweatt began publicly calling for his resignation during meetings. The Board responded by calling for the police to attend the February meeting. As Sweatt went over her allotted time and was finishing up her statements, a uniformed police officer approached behind her as she stood at the podium and then began following behind her as she returned to her seat during the February 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting.
Witnesses stated that Parker said, “I know this will be controversial, but I do not care if a teacher is racist, so long as it doesn’t interrupt the instruction.” He was then invited to a second NAACP meeting to explain his commentary, in which he made additional remarks that some also found offensive.
Though Parker issued a public apology for those comments and maintained that he was "misunderstood," Sweatt and others urged him to resign.
Parker had only been in Montclair for one school year, as an Interim. During his year-long tenure, he also abolished the Equity Department and positions therein.
The Board's elimination of the Student Equity Advocate position was surprising, as Sweatt stated that it wasn't announced. Though Graham was terminated, Sweatt further mentioned that she never anticipated that the position, itself had been terminated.
On July 1, a new Superintendent was hired and Sweatt then stated that she met with him to discuss the aforementioned concerns with abolishing the Equity Department. After meeting with new Superintendent Ponds in July, he informed Sweatt that he didn't know what happened to the Student Equity Advocate position and was supposed to get back to her after looking into it, but has not done so since.
Based on the commentary during the NAACP meeting Thursday, it appears that they intend on joining forces with Sweatt to call for answers and possibly reinstatement of the equity positions and department. A meeting is being set to possibly occur in two weeks.
There was a motion to host a special meeting in the next two weeks to discuss the subject with the additional community advocacy groups. In particular, the NIBPA, who has been at the forefront of pushing to question why the Student Equity Advocate was removed and why the department was abolished under the leadership of Parker.
Since Parker had only worked in the Montclair school district for one year and managed to dismantle the student equity programs and fire the advocate during that time, some have taken issue with the current Board, who allowed that to transpire.
It wasn't until this NAACP meeting that they learned that the Supervisor of Title 1 programs position, had also been abolished, under the equity umbrella.
Harris said, "We will invite the PTA and the National Independent Black Parent Association (NIBPA) to our next meeting."
Graham, has since returned to Montclair to tell his side of the story. In addition, he had also hosted a subsequent Zoom meeting, to inform the community of his concerns with student equity while working in the Montclair Public Schools.
Title 1 Supervisor Lisa Rollins was on the call. She explained to Harris that her position was abolished, as it was a part of the Equity Department. According to published reports, Title 1 is a Federal Aid program coordinated through the Department of Education that provides funds to schools. Her position was "...responsible for monitoring the expenditure of Title 1 funds to include planning, organizing, administering, directing, and accounting for the operation of the Title I Program," according to the Montclair Public Schools website.
In her capacity as Title 1 supervisor, Rollins said, that she assisted with student achievement and progress, teacher development and parent involvement. In addition, she coordinated programs to develop or strengthen professional skills in teachers and other staff members and oversaw parent involvement activities to enhance student learning at home as well as at school and to bridge the gap between schools and students’ families.
After hearing of her removal from Rollins' role, the NAACP education committee voted to look into all of the abolished positions and programs that were under the umbrella of the 'abolished' equity department.