As protests erupt globally over the biases ingrained in society, leading to the untimely death of black men and women at the hands of those meant to protect citizens, the school community is left wondering what it can be doing to fight injustice.
The Berkeley Heights School District recently adopted the motto “Include, Inspire, Empower.” Now is the opportunity to make those words come to life.
In a statement to staff and families addressing the death of George Floyd and the words about race that are populating the news and social media, Dr. Melissa Varley, Superintendent of Berkeley Heights Public Schools, said, “As difficult as these last few weeks and months have been, they also present an opportunity for us to engage our students in meaningful conversation, seize the moment to teach important life lessons, and instill values that will last a lifetime.”
Many of those opportunities for discussion are taking place in classes at Governor Livingston.
The week after the death of Floyd, some sophomore AP US History classes held discussions regarding the protests and the events leading up to them. Kimberly Fleming, one of the teachers who facilitated this discussion, had a goal of creating a space for students to openly share their thoughts on the events at hand.
“It is on [the students] to keep their peers grounded and living in a space where facts matter and where people deserve to be heard. We have to work together to heal the divide.” Fleming is also working to include recent actions into her Civil Rights unit, as well as discussing LGBTQ issues in all her classes.
Some may feel that it is obvious for there to be a discussion about current events in a history class. But there should be an open dialogue about racial injustice and ways to ensure students are not complicit in systemic racism. Students don’t feel that happens in all classes.
Junior Oona Rouse believes, “The reason not all teachers talk about race is because they are not comfortable with the topic, but that is not an excuse.”
Recent events, marches and protests, have proven being silent is not an option.
At the town’s Black Lives Matter march on June 7, leaders on the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council said one of their goals is to increase awareness about the oppression black people face. They expressed that the primary way to do this is through education.
Many students agree with the idea that a comprehensive education on black history and discussions of the issues that still plague society are needed.
Sophomore Eliana Proana said, “Racism should be more than a discussion during English, when reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Proano goes on to suggest that discussions about race shouldn’t be a side note. “Educating the students on implicit bias, systematic racism and the current events of the country to make sure that the students have the knowledge when approaching the topic.”
One way the school could do this is by creating a class about the plight of people of color in America, structured similarly to the Holocaust and Genocide course that is currently offered. Additionally, integrating these topics into English and history classes would ensure every student receives a more developed insight into these topics.
Students also have suggestions for how the administration can bring more inclusivity to the school.
Tamar Novik, senior, said, “In my opinion, the best thing GL can do right now is listen. Minority groups have had a hard time fitting in and being accepted by the rest of the student body.” She goes on to explain, “The school needs to listen to what students have gone through and are currently going through to facilitate change.”
Currently, the school is taking steps to assure every voice is heard. Robert Nixon, school principal, Stephen Hopkins, supervisor of the Social Studies department, Dr. Varley, and John DiPasquale, the Chief of Police, held a discussion about civil unrest on June 9 over Zoom. The goal of the roundtable was to include students in the discussion about diversity and inclusivity at GL. When signing up for the discussion, students were asked to submit topics for consideration in advance ranging from questions about local law enforcement to diversity in the community to the history behind systemic racism.
Novik said she wanted to attend the roundtable to “express concerns and suggestions I have for the school to do better and be better.”
The roundtable is the second such formally organized discussion this year meant to enlighten students on how to support and protect diversity, as well as offer insight into how the school community can support these efforts. Earlier in the year, Detective David D’Amico, Chief Investigator for Middlesex County Department of Corrections, spoke to a small group of students in Holocaust and Genocide, Social Activism Club, and SAGA about hate crimes and hate crimes legislation.
Another way the school is taking action right now is the creation of a school-based diversity council, similar to the one that was set up in the town. The idea for this task force was conceived in October, but the process has been fast-tracked due to the current events. The council is working with input from Mayor Angie Devanney, but it is a separate entity from the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council.
According to Dr. Varley the goal of this council is “to acknowledge this growing diversity, bring the different voices of our school community together, listen and learn from each other in order to make our schools more inclusive so that all of our students have a better experience.”
Dr. Varley said, “The District Diversity Council is the way to include the voices of parents, teachers, administrators, and students in the conversation.”
In an email Nixon sent to the entire school population, he said, “As a school, we strive to foster inclusive environments and promote empathy.” To meet that goal, discussions about race have to be ongoing. And they can’t end when the students leave the school at the end of the day or graduate from the school.
Although it is important for the schools to do their part in educating students, the conversations should continue outside of school.
To that end, students have been supporting the movement for change from home. Many attended the peaceful protests in nearby towns, including the one in Berkeley Heights, which called for justice for those affected by systemic racism and prejudice.
Social media has allowed the student body to stay connected, and people are taking advantage of this platform to raise awareness and share their thoughts over the matter. Although this is beyond the scope of the school, it demonstrates students’ interest in advancing their knowledge of the topic and creating change.
The students of Berkeley Heights and Mountainside are the next generation of educators, politicians, leaders, medical professionals, and law enforcement. Making sure that they do not contribute to biases and become part of systemic injustices is extremely important, especially in times like these.