The defining characteristics of South Orange and Maplewood (SOMA) are diversity, inclusion and equity. At least that is the ideal we strive for and what draws the majority of people to choose our two towns as a place to call home.

We pride ourselves in our shared values and deliberately reinforce those values as a community: we are host to an annual Pride Festival, we have an active community organization dedicated to deliberate discussions of racial integration, hundreds attend a cross-cultural festival annually, both towns have led the charge in declaring themselves sanctuary cities, and we have proudly displayed privately-funded “Black Lives Matter” banners over our respective main commercial streets. According to a New York Times real estate feature of South Orange (and by extension Maplewood), diversity is our “most appealing quality.”

Recent events at our schools and in our communities teach us that good hearts and great intentions are a solid foundation yet simply not enough. It is time to acknowledge that significant work remains to be done to achieve our shared vision of a safe and welcoming town for all of us, regardless of the race or religion. Our children are telling us that they are not experiencing the safety and welcome of the community we adults believe we have created, and it’s time to listen and take action.

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In the past few weeks alone, South Mountain Reservation was defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti; a bathroom at South Orange Middle School was defaced with graffiti threatening a lynching; 4th grade students at South Mountain Elementary School defaced school property with swastikas and lead a chant of “Adolf Hitler;” and our school system made international news when a 5th grade project depicting “Wanted: Runaway Slave” and “Slave Auction” posters was hung in an open hallway. In this backdrop, Black History Month is relegated to an afterthought, included in many curricula through a single assembly or one-day project.

Elementary school children have shared with their parents that they are afraid to use the bathroom during the school day, and others have complained to teachers and administrators that they’ve been told by peers to “go back to Africa.” The district has been sued by the ACLU for statistically disadvantaging black students, and there is a marked trend of parents of black boys with the financial means to do so are pulling their children out of our public schools for fear of mistreatment. Some students are afraid to go to school, and parents who have reached out in an attempt to discuss these concerns have faced a backlash.

The horrific actions of the past few weeks are separate events, but their increasing frequency points to a disturbing trend that can no longer be dismissed as one-time incidents. Action must be taken immediately to send a strong message that racism is not tolerated in our community.

We are a collective of concerned citizens and parents of children in the SOMSD school system. We believe that the educators and administrators in our district are among the best in the country, and we believe that systemic racism is an American problem. We believe that if there is any place in the United States that can achieve the vision of true harmonious integration, it is here: our teachers and administrators are talented educators who care deeply about the wellbeing of our children. But caring and wishing and hoping are not enough. We acknowledge the road is long and the work ahead of us is not easy, but we believe that together we can achieve the reality that our towns promise.

A blueprint to guide the conversion can be found in the efforts around anti-bullying. The focus is understandable due to the significant, negative impact to an individual child being bullied. However, anti-racism seems to be largely forgotten despite the equally damaging impact to an even broader audience.

This is too important to get wrong, and we will work with you to get it right. In exchange, we ask your commitment to immediately develop and implement – at a minimum – the following:

  1. A robust Anti Bias Policy that prohibits discrimination and/ or hate speech and implements restorative justice practices to foster a more respectful school community.
  2. An Incident Response Plan Playbook addressing:

    1. Same-day notification of parents, community leaders, and – when appropriate – local police, of any act of racial discrimination or hate speech
    2. A clearly defined restorative action plan for those impacted by the event (the focus today seems to be on the perpetrators rather than the victims), that includes resources for parents on how to talk with their children in an age-appropriate way about the event that occurred
    3. A mechanism for parents to contact administrators to discuss the matter
  3. A community led task force including administrators, educators, paraprofessionals, community leaders and parents charged with developing and implementing an Anti-Racism and Implicit Bias curriculum for all ages across the school district.

We look forward to working with you to fulfill the promise of our community and ensure the safety of all of our children. If you agree and would like to be included in actions moving forward, we welcome you to join our group Parents in Partnership for Respect & Equality in SOMA Schools (PARES) via Facebook.

PARES was founded in March 2017 by a volunteer group of parents of the South Orange School District to address bias and acts of hate in our schools.