SOUTH ORANGE AND MAPLEWOOD, NJ - John J. Ramos, Superintendent of the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD), sent the following email to the school community in response to multiple incidents of racial bias and anti-Semitism that have occurred recently at district schools.

Dear South Orange Maplewood School District,

A recent series of incidents in our schools and in our community has prompted intense discussions around racism, anti-Semitism, bias awareness, culturally responsive curriculum, and other related topics. We are using this as an opportunity to renew our commitment to culturally responsive schools, and strengthen our partnerships with families and the larger community in this essential work.  

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First, I must unequivocally affirm that SOMSD does not and will not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in our school community and we absolutely condemn anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other form of bias. 

This is a community that has made a determination to be diverse and inclusive. While that choice adds to the richness of our community, it also adds to the complexity and challenges with which we contend. As a school district, we must face the harsh facts as they relate to these challenges.  We cannot hide from them. We must admit our mistakes, which we will inevitably make, while being careful not to vilify children or staff.

Administrators take discovery or allegations of a bias incident very seriously and investigate thoroughly. Two parallel processes begin – one to identify and address what actually happened, and the other to use the incident as a teachable moment, and help all affected students process and learn from what happened.  An explanation of these parallel processes is attached.

We will always deal with individual students confidentially, using our code of conduct to address behaviors.  We have also begun using restorative practices to respond to incidents.  Restorative practices are a framework for building community and responding to destructive behavior through authentic dialogue that leads to action to set things right and repair and restore damaged relationships.  The process supports initiators in acknowledging and repairing the harm done, helps victims and witnesses process what happened, and helps the class or school community rebuild trust. We plan to expand training in restorative practices next year. 



While we address the student’s behaviors, we must remember that these are our young people, and use these teachable opportunities to shape their thinking and actions going forward.  They should not be vilified. Our job as educators is to respond to students’ less than desirable choices with appropriate consequences and guidance, in order to work to resolve what happened in such a way that our community remains whole.  We also partner with families to address what happened and ask families to help reinforce the key messages we are conveying at school at home as well.

In light of the recent increase in reports of bias incidents, we are reviewing all of our procedures and protocols for responding to bias incidents, to ensure consistent responses across the district.  We are also reviewing the Code of Conduct internally and plan to discuss it with the Board of Education’s Policy and Monitoring Committee, to determine whether we need to add more specific language about bias incidents, and related consequences.

The Administration, Board of Education and staff are working with instructional leaders and community leaders to chart out a broad range of next steps.  Since curriculum and instruction are the heart of everything we do, we are creating  a process by which our curriculum will be reviewed to ensure cultural sensitivity and responsiveness. This includes expanding elementary classroom libraries with additional books whose characters, settings and stories reflect our school community. We are also introducing new guidelines and supports for teachers to continuously examine their lesson plans and assignments for inclusiveness, bias and sensitivity.

We have retained an anti-bias consultant, Dr. Khyati Joshi, who is in her 3rd year of supporting our efforts in creating positive, bias-free cultures in all of our schools, and ensure culturally responsive delivery of our curriculum.  This year, Dr. Joshi provided in-depth training for 275 teachers in anti-bias education, social justice, and culturally responsive classrooms.  We also started the year with all new staff participating in a workshop on Striving for Social Justice. We have increased resources for cultural competency training for next year by allocating an additional $100,000 in the 2017-2018 budget.

In addition to providing teachers with the tools they need to create inclusive environments for their students, we also provide a host of opportunities directly to students themselves. This has recently included “Who Belongs” assemblies in our elementary schools, “It Starts with Hello” programming in grades K-8, “A Day of Kindness” and “Week of Respect” in all of our schools, the MAC Scholars program in secondary schools, student led forums at the high school, and many other initiatives.

We are committed to continuing to work together with students, parents, guardians, community members and agencies to create the inclusive schools and community which we all hope to build. This requires collective effort and forbearance when we inevitably stumble, while always holding ourselves and each other accountable as we move forward with this essential work.  

I look forward to continuing this dialogue and work with you in the coming months. We are planning a town hall meeting to address these important issues in the next few weeks, and will invite the community once the date is finalized.  You are also welcome to contact me at any time via Let’s Talk!

Sincerely,
John J. Ramos

Parallel Processes in Responding to Bias Incidents

Administrators take discovery or allegations of a bias incident very seriously and investigate thoroughly. Two parallel processes begin – one to identify and address what actually happened, and the other to use the incident as a teachable moment, and help all affected students process and learn from what happened.  Steps may include:

Investigation, Discipline and Consequences

Helping All Affected  Students and School Community Heal

ASSESSMENT

The situation is assessed for imminent danger, and addressed accordingly.

INITIATOR

Initiators are helped to reflect on their actions, how they impacted other individuals and the school as a whole, and what they can do to help repair the harm. 

INVESTIGATION

An investigation begins, to identify exactly what happened, who was involved, and determine next steps.

  • HIB allegations follow state mandated reporting procedures.
  • When necessary, law enforcement personnel conduct their own investigation, which may result in consequences outside of the school’s authority.

VICTIM/WITNESS

Students who were the target of or witnesses to the incident are helped to process what happened, as well as to reflect on what could be done to help restore their feeling of safety.

 

CONSEQUENCES

Once facts are ascertained, consequences are identified using the Code of Conduct as a guide, taking into account the nature and severity of the behaviors, and the developmental age of the students.

Consequences can range from referral to mediation, to loss of privileges, to short term suspension, to possible long term suspension or expulsion for infractions that are highly serious or cause imminent danger.

NOTE: The consequences are often not seen by anyone outside of staff, the student, and their family, since students are guaranteed privacy pursuant to Federal and State laws.

SCHOOL COMMUNITY

We work to rebuild trust with the class/grade/school by holding discussions focused on making every student feel included, and developing an action plan to ensure that every school member is helped to feel that they belong.

Depending on the severity of the incident, continuing morning meetings/advisory classes/student forums may include time to further discuss and carry out or reflect upon the class/community action plan.

If warranted, additional district social workers are deployed to help students and staff process the incident.

Families are informed of issues which directly affect their children and asked to reinforce school messages.

More significant incidents may also be brought to the attention of the full school, full district and/or to community leaders for a broader response.

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