The following was sent via email to the South Orange Middle School (SOMS) community.

Dear SOMS Community & Families,

Last week when students and families shared their shock and pain about anti-Semitic images, comments posted by SOMS students on social media, we knew out of a plain sense of human decency, the administration at SOMS needed to act quickly to stop these acts.  And we did.  We know the pain inflicted when an individual or people are not respected.

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One acts quickly but carefully. We immediately started to investigate these current specific racial incidents. We reached in the community to find root causes behind them.  Why were they happening in a community reputed for its diversity; why at this time?  We know the national political climate has been spewing racial comments, but why weren’t our children able to understand this hurtful rhetoric was wrong?  After all, they are part of our community. They should have been more prepared to deal with the current national environment; minimally they shouldn’t be copying it. What lack of training; which safeguards, eliminated, allowed this incident involving SOMS students to occur.

Concurrently, the Jewish community reached out, to offer to work with us. This past Monday, we met with Jewish religious leaders in a very fruitful meeting. The Coalition on Race and the Anti-Defamation League joined us as well. It became obvious, that while this is not a new occurrence to our community, our community had always come together in the past to curb hurtful behavior.  We are coming together now as a community, but with a change.  his time, we wanted to put in place programs and safeguards to stem the very cycle of this behavior.

We are reviewing practices among administrators (past and present), as well as teachers, students etc. which may have contributed to a racial atmosphere within SOMS. We will be looking into restoring programs that taught our students respect, such as Respect, Reflect, Remember, a program though highly effective, was suspended at SOMS a few years ago.

From the Jewish community, we have asked for some of their programs, those which have proved successful in sensitizing people on racism. We are in the process of also reviewing SPLCs, (Southern Poverty Law Center) teaching tolerance and respect guidelines, and Anti-Defamation League lesson plans and Table Talk for parents.   Our goal, however, goes beyond tolerating diversity. It is to embrace it.

Our next move is to involve the community. Friday, May 20th, we will meet with a wider range of religious leaders, as well as local community leaders, town officials, the HSA, our staff and students.

We want and need their input. A lot of people are saying the right things have not been done, so lets change that too. 

While we plan to have some ongoing meetings to be sure we are moving and keep moving in the right direction, the important thing is not to ignore what has happened.  Actions now, without retaliations, must be started. We are not going to teach nor allow retaliation. Retaliation goes hand and hand with racism and bullying. We want our students to truly understand there are better ways.

There is work in front of us, but due to the unyielding support of our students, our teachers and the community, we will move in the right direction.

After all, we have students who participated in the Martin Luther King Cultural Horizons Club/O Ambassadors Club, and over the years developed programs such as Sister Schools in Malawi East Africa, Uganda, Haiti, South Africa as well as here in the U.S., the Joy sisters who founded Girls Helping Girls, Briana Anderson with the BAM Social Action Network, the Model UN students, the Students for Social Change club, and surely we can do the work to further develop SOMS now. Our graduates, such as Zach Braff, AJ Calloway, Ms. Lauryn Hill and Robert Verdi, are known for their success as well as their embrace of diversity.

Our students are already aware; their actions make a difference.

Ours is a community which faced challenges in these areas before. This community stopped racist’s paintings on garage doors in the 80’s, cross burnings, house steering in the 90’s, and student protests not so long ago. However we also acknowledge, from certain federal rulings our district has received over the last few years, we have not always lived up to our responsibility to respect all diversities.

I don’t know all, but I do know these are urgent times. The cycles of disrespecting others in the district or those cycles resurfacing nationally across the country, can’t be allowed to adversely impact who we are and what our community stands for.   

This is one of those moments in which we modify and strengthen our behaviors OR we accept responsibility for colluding with a behavior that does not embrace diversity.

We talk of moments in which higher values can be learned and taught. This is our moment.

My childhood was spent growing up in South Orange. I went to SOMS.  I am proud of that. I want SOMS students to acquire and learn an increased sense of responsibility, pride and growth through what has occurred.

Together, if we hold each other accountable, we can make this so.

With respect,

Lynn A. Irby