MONTCLAIR, NJ - This summer has been a month of protest. In Montclair, one in particular that stood out, had been organized by students on June 7. With morre than 4000 people showing up to support them, now the leaders in the community have invited them to have a seat at the table.
Organizing and leading many larger protests in Montclair, were the African-American students in the Montclair Public School system, who stated that they were tired of the racial injustices and microaggressions they face each day from both students and teachers. As a result of how organized the protests were and the manner in which the students approached this subject, they were invited to sit down and discuss their demands with Nathan Parker (Interim Superintendent) and the Board of Education on June 25.
The student organizers explained that after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, a few students in a text chat started sharing their racial experiences in the Montclair Public School System. It turned into over 4000 students and families showing up to Rand Park on June 7, to protest against the racial injustices they experience on a day-to-day basis while attending school. While there, students read their accounts aloud, recalling racist encounters they had with staff and students at Montclair High School and the public school system.
A second protest on June 19, also organized by students, garnered support from students throughout the entire Essex County. In addition to publicly reading an account of their experiences during the protest, they also created social media platforms where students share their experiences of racial injustice in their schools and classrooms.
One social media group located on Instagram, called Black at MHS, gives anonymous accounts of Montclair students and alumni who have experienced racism in Montclair Schools.
One student wrote, "My sophomore year, my mom and I were talking in the Team 2 office about my junior year and the secretary, who didn't know me or my academic standing blurts out 'You're going to take two AP classes? Are you sure that won't be too challenging?' In my young age, I didn't realize how big of a microaggression that was."
Another wrote, "The college admissions culture in CGI (Civic and Government Institute) is toxic, especially for black students. Any black student that gets into a competitive school is relentlessly dissected, with many white students suggesting their admission is solely the result of affirmative action."
There are other Black at groups on Instagram, for other surrounding communities and private schools, as well.
During the June 25 Board meeting, the group had also compiled a list of demands. Shayla George, one of the student organizers of the protest, was accompanied by two other students from around Essex County.
The list of demands, as listed below, are in relation to building racial harmony within the Essex County Public School Systems.
The students expressed that their demands are not frivolous or wishful thinking, but more like "deserves," one organizer expressed. The demands have painted a concrete picture of the difference between a beneficial school environment, and one that thrives off of institutional racism.
Since the meeting on June 25th, a new Superintendent, Jonathan Ponds, has been placed in office. Since his July 1 start, he has already met with the students to hear their concerns.
Ponds said, “We are encouraged by the voices of our young people and take their demands regarding racial inequality seriously."
The two students the Board met with were Genesis Whitlock and George.
According to George, “Genesis Whitlock and I are a part of an unofficial 'Student Committee' between the Board of Education and the Superintendent. We will be actively involved in the implementation of our demands and initiatives.”
Ponds added, "Their demands are being discussed in administrative meetings, by the Board of Education in the Policy Committee meetings, and we have a scheduled meeting later today with two of the students leading this effort."
During the July 20 Board meeting, there was a first reading of a new policy that would appoint a student liaison to the Board.
"The Board, at its meeting on July 20, had a first reading for a new policy which will allow for student representatives on the Board of Education which demonstrates the Board’s and District’s commitment to student voice,” Ponds concluded.
Whitlock states, “After being provided with historical context and reading through Montclair district’s policy we have found that our demands are actually more like 'deserves'."
"The responsibility is on the Board of Education to adhere to the policies that have been created. We are willing to work with the Board to help create more concrete policies but, as students, we are just doing what we can to empower ourselves and our community to ensure that we hold our politicians and Board of Education members accountable when necessary."
"We have actively been engaging in discussions with the new Superintendent and the Board of Ed. President, and we are confident in our ability to effectively advocate for our demands because of the overwhelming support we’ve seen from our community,” Whitlock concluded.
“The end game”, according to A.J. Christian, one of the June 19 protest organizers, “is when all of our demands are met.”
Here is a list of their demands…
1. Comprehensive and unchanging examination and education about the American police force, it's roots and origins, triumphs and transgressions.
2. Seminars for students on how to deal with police brutality.
3. An accurate depiction of black history as an education. There is so much more to Black History then Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. There are many men and women who have paved the way in fields such as business, politics, music and so much more. We are more than just the big names in the Civil Rights Movement and slavery.
4. Twice a month, in-school, intensive discussions targeting both direct and indirect racism and how to combat them.
5. Ending the racial bullying that takes place in the school. Bullying, especially bullying by teachers and administrators towards black students, causes the environment to not be conducive to the mental health of the students. In order to fix this and to help combat it, conversations need to be had.
6. Professional development specifically geared towards non-black and white teachers and administrators regarding racism in the classroom and throughout the public school system. People are being hired with no care towards the harm that they can and will do to students who spend the majority of their lives in school . The people paid to watch, and protect, and look over students need to be people who care about students everyday, all day--not just when it's brought to their attention.
7. We need an Anonymous Reporting System where students can anonymously report racial bullying and activity that takes place in the school.
8. In-school Mental Health Programs geared towards black students providing them with the outlet to restore the damage done by racism. There is no reason why we should be making space for institutions such as the Police Department in school but not space for real, welcoming Therapist and Mental Health Programs.
9. Establish connections between black student groups and administrators, specifically the black students and someone in the role of Headmaster or Principal.
10. We also demand increased collaboration between Essex County Schools. And by this we mean primarily black student leaders collaborating to continue to build race relations among the extremely divisive Essex County Educational System.