SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- A posting on social media of a Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School freshman in blackface posed in front of a confederate flag has sparked discussion of how involved the school district can be in regard to behavior that takes place outside of school hours. 

Related: Alleged Threat to Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Deemed Not Credible
Related: 'Parents Need to Think about What They Post on Social Media'

The post over a week ago has prompted two letters from Superintendent Dr. Joan Mast, as well as a letter from the police chiefs of Scotch Plains and Fanwood admonishing parents for spreading misinformation on social media before the conclusion of a police investigate.

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In an exclusive interview with TAPintoSPF, Dr. Mast answers questions about the incident, what the school can do about it, and possible actions the school district can take in the future:

1. Is the SPFK12 responsible for what students post on social media (especially after school hours)?
If students actions outside of school impact students when they’re in school, we are responsible. The district, in partnership with families, is responsible for educating students on the appropriate use of social media. Students and parents alike need to be aware that any post they engage in is a digital footprint and lasts forever. Everyone needs to be aware of the impact of their posts and be mindful.

2. A speaker at the most recent BOE meeting said that students are being called the N-word "all day, every day." Do you believe that's happening?

Based on the testimony of some students, it is happening. Therefore, we need to take it seriously and make it clear to our students that words of hate won’t be tolerated. Our code of conduct has to be well-defined around this word and what it represents. We need to educate students and parents on why it’s so offensive and hurtful.

3. Is there a racial problem at SPFHS?
There are incidents within the schools and the community that speak to the need for a sustained focus on people developing a respect for differences. A strong relationship between the committee for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, along with the two townships and the SPF District, has been in place since last spring to collectively work on this challenge.

4. Student April Walsh said at the BOE meeting that she wants "action", such as an assembly. Is one being planned? What other action can SPFHS take?
Work has already been taking place in our schools:

  • The No Place for Hate Committee is a group of student leaders and school faculty from various organizations, working together to combat and prevent further instances of hate in our school. The No Place for Hate student group will be presenting to 9th and 10th graders which is a continuation of last year’s workshop titled, “Through My Eyes.”
  • The 10th grade American Literature Curriculum now includes additional books that addresses the greater diversity in perspectives and identities. One unit, in particular, was designed to foster ethnocultural empathy through research, narratives, and intergroup dialogue sessions. Each dialogues session took place after school and brought together students and educators to discuss identity, privilege, and the power of narratives. 
  • Unconscious Bias workshops: The Social Studies teachers created classroom lessons, teacher PD and administrative workshops on understanding and overcoming Unconscious Bias. 

Below is the work that will be done in our schools and communities:

  • Tell Me Who You Are Book Club: In the Spring, high school teachers and administrators are planning a school community book club focused on the text “Tell Me Who You Are.” The book was written by two high school seniors whose school project turned into a year-long inquiry on race, identity, and racial amity. 
  • Organize a school and community event with administrators and students which will focus on uniting students together as a community respecting everyone’s differences.
  • Recognizing that symbols of hate are often spread through social media and also knowing that white supremacists have been recruiting students through social media, the District administration is working with Scotch Plains and Fanwood Police Departments to organize a ‘Responsible Social Media Use’ Symposium for students and parents.
  • The District administration will continue to listen to student voice through the Black Student Union and No Place for Hate.

5. Do you think it's fair to hold the district accountable for what one troubled freshman does?
It’s not about the actions of one student, it’s about what is provoked when symbols of hate are brought to the forefront and it’s all of our responsibility to be respectful of each other’s differences. We need to use these events as learning opportunities for our students as well as our entire community to make the world a better place for everyone.

6. Will the student be returning to SPFHS? If yes, how can the school ensure his safety when he does come back? (Do you think he'll be targeted for bullying?)
All of our staff members are bound by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). We uphold the rights and privacy of all our students and are not at liberty to discuss any student.

7. Some people have commented that the School Board seemed aloof and unresponsive (and even uncaring) when students and parents spoke about race issues at the BOE meeting. Is that a fair assessment?
The Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, was an Open Agenda, regularly planned meeting. These meetings are scheduled before the school year starts. Advance notice of these meetings is provided to The Star Ledger, The Scotch Plains Times, The Township Clerk of Scotch Plains and the Borough Clerk of Fanwood in August of that school year. The Agenda is set the week prior to the Board meeting taking place and is visible for all on our website: https://www.spfk12.org

There are two (15 minute) opportunities in every agenda for the public to make open comment to the Board. It is a time for people to approach the microphone and provide information. It is not a time for the Board to respond. The information the public provides is important and goes on to inform future work that the Board of Ed. does. Out of respect for the amount of people that may want to speak, as well as time constraints, this is not an opportunity for open dialogue. At future meetings, the Board reports out what actions were taken based on community input.

8. Anything else you'd like to say?
It takes a whole community to educate our children well and to capitalize on learning opportunities. The actions of educators, parents, and community members impacts the lives of our kids. It’s a mission we should all take seriously.

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