SUMMIT, NJ - Less than 24 hours after the third separate incident of hate symbols being found on a Summit School District campus, Summit Superintendent of Schools June Chang, along with Summit Board of Education President Debra McCann, met with community members at another in series of the District's 'Coffee & Conversation' events.
Scheduled prior to the onset and continuance of the incidents, the event was attended by dozens of parents and community members, many of whom had comments and questions about the District's response as well as the level and transparency of its communications regarding the incidents.
A detailed conversation about this communication process, the planned curriculum initiatives, and the District's decision not to share further with the public details of every future “hateful symbol and word” that might be found on school property comprised the entire meeting.
During yesterday's event, Chang acknowledged that the timing of District's initial communication about the first incident, in which a swastika was discovered November 21 at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, was flawed. A District-wide, e-mailed letter from Chang was not sent out until November 29.
“It was a perfect storm after a perfect storm,” he said. The letter to the District should have come out Wednesday, when the first swastika was found, he said, but he was traveling, and Dr. Donna Gallo, the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Principal, was new to her position. “It’s 100 percent on me,” he added. Chang said that “a strong statement that said that no level of hate will be accepted” should have been e-mailed immediately. He said that the District has learned from this process and a new communication protocol is in the works, including details on who needs to be contacted, when, and who approves communications.
“There was a communication breakdown,” he said. “We have operations and procedures in place; we are going to shore up protocols.” He asked the public to “trust that the protocols are in place.”
“We learn from every situation,” he said.
When faced with a situation such as this, McCann said the District must strike a balance between doing something quickly and doing it perfectly. “Something quick isn’t always perfect,’ she said.
McCann said that the Communications Committee, chaired by Donna Miller, has been working on a plan for the District, which has been outlined in several board communications. The committee has been working on a “draft plan, focusing on the committee’s mandate, its mechanisms for communication, standard practices, and desired outcomes. The plan will be completed shortly,” McCann wrote in an earlier letter to the District.
Many parents learned of the most recent (December 10) incident when Summit High School Principal Stacy Grimaldi emailed a letter that afternoon to high school families. She -- and the principals of all the other Summit Public Schools -- issued letters to their respective students’ families that told of the latest incident, and outlined specific programs that each school in the District would be holding to educate their communities on “intolerance for prejudice and disrespect.”
Following the discovery of the latest swastika and other racial slurs in Summit High School, Chang also wrote in an e-mail to all school families, “As part of our ongoing consultation with local authorities, it has been determined that it is in the best interest of the investigations to refrain from broadly communicating about additional incidents should they occur. We will continue to respond immediately to any potential further reports, and work closely with the police.”
When asked by TAPinto Summit how disclosing any future incidents could impact any law enforcement investigation or be otherwise detrimental Chang -- through a District communications representative -- responded by reiterating, virtually verbatim. what he wrote in the December 10 e-mail to parents, stating, "in our continued conversations with the police, it has been determined that it is in the best interests of the investigations to refrain from broadly communicating about additional incidents should they occur."
TAPinto Summit also reached out to Summit Police Department Chief Robert Weck, asking what effect disclosing any further incidents would have on the investigation. In a statement -- forwarded by a City of Summit communications representative -- Weck stated, "The Summit Police Department continues to fully investigate any incidents where symbols and words of hate are placed on or in public buildings. During active investigations, standard practice dictates that details of the investigation are not shared publicly. The Summit Board of Education has decided, and I support, not to release further statements from the district if additional incidents occur in any of the schools. It is my understanding that any notifications about future incidents will be made by individual school administration to families."
Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom - Summit Jewish Community Center -- and the parent of a District student -- expressed concern that Chang’s prior letter and his follow-up message echoed the fact that the District will be less forthcoming with communication on any discovery of future hate symbols.
“I’d be for more and not for less in being kept in the loop so that the kids see that this is a community effort and not just from the top down,” he said.
Chang said that he will keep the community apprised of overall initiatives, but that sharing each specific detail could impede the investigations.
Another parent asked if Summit could offer an “anonymous tips” form to the community, the way that Pascack Hills did after several swastikas were also found in their boy’s bathroom at their high school. Chang said that he knows Erik Gundersen, the Pascack Hills superintendent of schools, and is talking to him to see if this program has been beneficial and effective.
Lisa Stein, the parent of a middle schooler and the founder of the Facebook group “No Room For Hate in Summit” said, “I beg you to keep us informed.”
Chang said that any incident that impacts safety would be communicated immediately.
Stein said that parents were told that students had “meaningful conversations” in Advisory, when in fact, many classes, like that of her own child’s, did not broach the subject. This communication, she said, was “overly optimistic.” She said that teachers reported that they were not prepared to discuss the subject. She said that teachers have to be willing to have conversations with their students “even when it’s uncomfortable; even when they’re ill-prepared.”
Chang said, “I don’t deny that.” We need to be better, he said. He said that there is a weakness in getting the teachers trained. He said that he is looking into getting educational grants, possibly from Summit Educational Foundation, and will be looking to students to help facilitate some peer leadership programs.
Stein suggested that the district might send students their own age-appropriate e-mail tailored with a message suited for them that they can refer back to.
Parent Mark Weinberg said that if the public is not informed adequately,“rumors and falsehoods” circulate. “Absence of information is fertile ground for misinformation,” he said.
He suggested that descendants of Holocaust survivors or slave bondage might be the best teachers to personify for the students the hate concepts the community strives to condemn. Washington School Principal Lauren Banker said that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and for 16 years she has told their story to her students.
Community member Irvy Pinzon, who had two children go through the Summit public schools, said that it is unfortunate, but that the people most in need of a civic education are not hearing the community’s pleas for decency. “The people who need to listen don’t come to these meetings,” he said. Another parent, who is African American, said that her family feels “slighted” because when incidents of “the N word” had been reported at LCJSMS there was very little repercussion, but when the swastikas were found “there was a whole assembly.”
“What about us?” she asked.
Weinberg said that he appreciates the sentiment of the programs for “love and no hate,” but, he said, “be vigilant” in trying to find out who did this. This behavior could be a “big red flag” -- a warning sign of a troubled youngster “who might go further” with his aggression, he said.
Chang said that he, the Board and District “are working to solve it as quickly as they can. The decision not to report any future incidents, he said, is partly to allow the police to do their job better, he said. “They are looking to narrow the scope; putting out a letter can be harmful to the way they are trying to find out things. We want to get the investigation done -- let the police do their job,” he said.
McCann said that this “wasn’t a rushed decision.” Every incident will be reported and tracked, she said.
Chang said that he would probably give an update on any new incidents in January with his regular vandalism report.
Barb Lucaci, another community member whose children attended Summit schools, said that the problem is that “the perpetrators come from families that don’t think like the rest of us.”
Summit Parent Carol Pak-Teng said that because of the District’s initial response there has been a “loss of trust” toward the District. She felt that every detail does not need to be relayed, but that there needs to be a certain level of transparency. “We don’t need details, but programs need to be thoughtful and deliberate,” she said.
Parent Sharyn Colon asked if there could be a joint assembly for parents and children, similar to the one on car safety that is required for students to attend before they are permitted to park at Summit High School. “Parents need to be educated,” she said.
Chang said that after the initial shock of these crimes have worn off, everyone should be able to focus on how this can help Summit grow as a community. “The good will overcome the negative,” he said.
McCann said, “all of us want the same things for our kids; we really are listening.”
Chang outlined three steps addressing the hate statements.
The District is looking at what programs are already in place, and whether or not their message has been consistent between the schools. He said that a “Day of Unity and Kindness” is planned for this Thursday, December 13, at all Summit schools and that each building principal has sent a letter to families outlining event for the day which includes grade-appropriate programming at all levels.
Potential Additional Efforts
Chang said that the district is investigating what else can be done in the “short term,” and is having “longer conversations” with building principals about what else can be done within the academic day
Chang said that the administration is looking for help from groups outside the District. Plenty of people want to help, he said. “We need to stand together.".
One outside group -- the local clergy -- was represented at the meeting. In addition to Friedman, the Reverend Dennison Harrield, the pastor at Wallace Chapel AME Zion Church was present.
Friedman said that it is not just “Jews and African Americans” that are affected by these hate symbols, but also “anyone that is perceived to be different.” Harrield said that the contributions of groups like the Anti-Defamation League should also be utilized. Chang said that he was meeting with the ADL later that afternoon.