MONTCLAIR, NJ - After displaying a video during the Montclair District staff convocation on Wednesday, Principal Joseph Putrino was immediately removed from his position as Principal of Renaissance Middle School.
Within hours of displaying the video earlier in the day, the same evening, the Board announced that Putrino was removed and would be replaced by Acting Principal Major Jennings. Jennings has served as the Vice Principal of Buzz Aldrin Middle School since 2012, a school recently embroiled in turmoil from students speaking out about mistreatment and excessive bullying they have faced while attending school there.
After having sent an apology earlier to staff, Ponds directed his apologies towards students, staff, and families for what he described as a completely inappropriate video.
Ponds said, "On behalf of the Montclair public schools administration and the Montclair Board of Education, I want to apologize to students, staff parents, guardians, and our community. During today's convocation for the staff, a completely inappropriate and unacceptable video was broadcast. This was inconsistent with our strong school values and ideals regarding diversity. The Montclair Public Schools and I, as your superintendent, are committed to providing our staff and students with a school environment free of racism, prejudice, and bias. The matter is being handled internally by central administration."
He concluded by apologizing again before speaking of plans to replace Putrino.
Staff members in attendance during the convocation have reported that the video attached was the one in question, though, this information has not been confirmed by District officials.
NAACP President Al Pelham, also issued a statement, saying, “Principal Putrino has a history of complaints of racial insensitivity during his tenure as a leader in the Montclair School District." Pelham continued, calling for immediate action to be taken.
As part of a presentation by Putrino, the offensive video was shown during the virtual convocation. Shortly thereafter, the video was stopped when the comments started to fill up due to outrage from the staff. It then took some time for Ponds to call the tech staff to cut the video short and interrupt Putrino’s presentation.
Putrino, who was also serving as the president of the Montclair Principal's Association, was formerly Principal at Glenfield Middle School, Hillside Elementary School and Northeast Elementary School. After being transferred from Glenfield in 2019, six black teachers filed a lawsuit against the District alleging discrimination and claiming that Putrino, while he was Prinicpal, had only given white teachers the opportunity to earn additional pay.
After seeing responses during the presentation, Putrino immediately apologized, saying that if people were offended, it was not his intent. Ponds also apologized to staff, saying that this would not happen again.
During the Board meeting, Ponds added, "Lastly, I want to say tonight, that Mr. Major Jennings, will be the Acting Principal of Renaissance Middle School.”
Putrino, who has been serving as the President of the Montclair Principal's Association, was also removed from that position and replaced by Samantha Anglin, Hillside Elementary School Principal, officials announced.
Anglin said that members of the Montclair Principals Association did not vet nor condone the message that was displayed during the convocation. Anglin continued by saying, “Now more than ever, all children, families, staff and community members need to be treated with equality and respect.”
During public comment, June Raegner, who is on the Board of the Montclair NAACP, said, "It's very concerning, what happened at the convocation. It's great that the MEA is speaking up about a Principal's behavior. The District seems to have responded, Dr. Anglin has responded. What I'd like to know is when are teachers going to be held accountable for their behaviors? When will the culture described in @BlackatMHS be addressed by the Board? When is this behavior going to be changed?"
Raegner was referring to testimonies of various Montclair students who have begun to share stories of racism and bias from both staff and students in the Montclair Public Schools.
Raegner continued, "When will the Board hold each other accountable? It was very disappointing that you did not hold the previous Interim Superintendent accountable. How are things going to change or are they even going to change?"
Kellia Sweatt, President of the Montclair Chapter of the National Independent Black Parent Association, said, "Of course the video today of the convocation, is disturbing on multiple levels. I'm not able to disconnect it from the culture and climate...of Montclair Public School District."
She questioned whether anyone had vetted the video before the presentation, to which, the Board later stated that they hadn't.
Sweatt continued, saying, "The last time that I saw any of you in-person...I and other black parents were criminalized. So now that we're at a point where there's a particular momentum as it pertains to Black Lives Matter, hopefully, the racism that you were not able to recognize before, maybe you're able to recognize it now, so that you can do better and be better because you've added to it.”
She was referring to an incident that occurred, where the Board called the police to approach Sweatt during a Board of Education meeting, as she spoke at the podium. Montclair School District officials have been intertwined in public controversy since statements made by the Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker during an NAACP meeting, in the fall of 2019, were made public.
For several subsequent meetings, Sweatt and others, had been calling for the resignation of Parker. Things turned sour when the Board instructed a uniformed police officer to the meeting. When she spoke over her time, he walked up behind Sweatt, at the Feb 19 Board meeting (at the at about '2:31:15' mark), as she stood at the podium and then began following behind her, as she returned to her seat.
Witnesses stated that Parker said to the NAACP audience, “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 his statements and maintained that he was "misunderstood," Sweatt and others pressed for him to resign or be terminated. Parker had only been in Montclair for one school year, as an interim.
During Parker's tenure in Montclair, he dismantled the Student Equity Advocate position and took away his office, without explanation.
Sweatt continued her comments during the Wednesday virtual Board meeting, saying, "Nathan Parker is now gone,… the previous superintendent is now gone, you supported him and you protected him which also makes me think that you support his values, clearly you do, because I asked ...specifically about the student equity advocate. He said the position was not going anywhere. Well, it seems like it has gone."
"Now that there have been rallies and…. The previous student equity advocate has come back to Town to let us know everything that happened, we are deeply disturbed about the culture and climate in Montclair Public schools, specifically as a pertains to black people,” she said.
After the Student Equity Advocate was terminated from the district on March 5, and in the wake of Goerge Floyd's death on May 25, groups of students and parents have become publicly vocal about systemic racism and mistreatment of black children in the Montclair schools that has persisted for years.
Students have also created social media pages devoted to 'calling out' injustices in the Montclair School District. On Instagram, Snapchat and other social pages such as @BlackatMHS, @Sunrisemontclair, @racistsinnj and others, students from various protected class groups, including Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and others, have 'exposed' what they believe to be injustices and bullying.
Sweatt questioned the Board further, asking if the position was abolished or not.
In a prior conversation with Ponds, in July, Sweatt revealed that Ponds had informed her that he would check and get back to her. To date, he has not gotten back to her on whether or not the position was removed and the board did not respond to questions regarding the position.
As her three minutes ticked away, Sweatt added, “Now that young people have come out, and spoken so eloquently and families have spoken out at rallies about the racism that they have endured, we see that what they have said, literally matches word for word what the Student Equity Advocate reported back in November. So, we have wasted a great deal of time, when we could have been protecting children.”
Concluding her commentary, Sweat went further to discuss the newly adopted anti-racism policy. She also questioned the Board’s ability to appropriately handle an anti-racism policy after they allowed Parker to remain.
“We are very interested …in continuing to work on the policy. I am confused at how your policy committee could be the individuals to thoroughly, in an appropriate way, handle an anti-racism policy, when each one of the board members…. ignored the fact that there even was an anti-racism policy," Sweat continued.
In referring to Parker making statements that he didn't care if a teacher was racist as long as they didn't teach them racist ways, Sweat stated, “Making statements like what he said, helped to embold[en] the racism here in town…”
Sweatt’s time was cut off, and she didn’t complete her final statement.
After Sweatt, Board members responded. Allison Silverstein didn't comment. Though she was on the call, she has not yet become 'official.'
Alfred Davis said of the video, "I didn't have an opportunity and don't want to view. ...This is something that our town doesn't need at this point. We don't need these types of distractions that are occurring."
Jessica de Koninck said, "I'll echo what Dr. Davis said, and say how sorry I am to Dr. Ponds." She added, "It's very difficult. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we don't have room for racism in Montclair."
Sergio Gonzalez added, "It's refreshing to be a part of this Board and see how quickly action was taken. I'm proud, I'm happy that Dr. Ponds took a stand quickly and thoroughly."
Eve Robinson, "I know this is the challenge right now and I have a lot of confidence in our administration. We are reimagining, we are not going to go back." Robinson added that she will not be serving on the Board next year. "I was at the convocation today, so I believe that was my last convocation. It was not the one I was hoping."
Board President Latifah Jannah said, "The Board supports our superintendent. The Montclair Board of Education stands behind our policies and procedures."
After public comment, Ponds reiterated his position on the concerns raised by the community. He said, “I want to say that we’re an anti-racism district.”
“We’re going to follow our policy to the T. When things happen, we will address them quickly and promptly. We do not tolerate racism. I will not tolerate racism.”