WAYNE, NJ – During the public comment portion of this week’s Wayne Board of Education meeting, former students spoke up about their experiences of racism in the school system and asked that the BOE consider changes in the curriculum.
At the outset of the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Mark Toback read a resolution created by the BOE entitled ‘Resolution Against Racism.’ In the resolution the BOE set a goal for the 2020-2021 school year to establish “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”
The resolution read: “The Wayne Board of Education recognizes that schools can be a powerful force in generating change and that our school community shares a collective responsibility to reject all forms of individual and systemic racism as destructive to our educational mission, values, and goals.”
The goals laid out in the resolution included: Internal and external reviews of policies, practices, procedures and curricula; Creation of a district diversity statement; Assessing mascots; Professional Development Programs for bias awareness training; Publication of an annual report on diversity, equity and inclusion; and Budgeting to support these goals.
When the time came for the public to comment during the BOE meeting, the former Wayne students spoke.
Timmy Thompson graduated WV last year and is one of the organizers of the BLM protest in Wayne. He told the BOE of his racist encounters in the Wayne school system. “As an LGBTQ African American boy, I have been failed by the Wayne public school system,” he said.
Thompson brought up several examples of incidents that he and his friends endured involving racism. “It was in middle school where I began to hear the ‘N’ word without a single thing being done by my teachers. Freshman year of high school I witnessed kids openly displaying confederate flags and I experienced what it was like to be called a ‘faggot.’”
“I'll tell you exactly why that happened,” he said. “Because the Wayne education system has not educated its students on the truth of American history and modern-day American Society.”
Fellow BLM organizer Marisa Budnick, a WV class of 2016 graduate, told the BOE that she wanted to discuss diversifying the curriculum. “I have learned more about black history in this past month than I did in my 12 years in the Wayne public school system.”
“My hope is that you will implement more than just four weeks of the real history of the US including: indigenous, Latin X, Asian and LGBT history and literature,” Budnick added.
Chad Tannous, a former Wayne resident who graduated from WV in 2012 said: “Me and my peers at the time were psychologically broken by the Wayne Valley school district by the time we got to senior year. it is my opinion that there is still something truly fundamentally white supremacist within Wayne's culture and it comes out in the school system.”
Current resident Steve Wildt, who spoke up to address the Wayne Valley mascot issue, did not like Tannous’ statement. “I'm honestly a little offended about the last comment,” he said. “I've never seen it [white supremacy]. I grew up in Wayne. I still live in Wayne. I'm not looking to leave. I’ve never heard or seen any of these things, so I'm a little offended by that comment alone.”
Melody Appel, a WV graduate from 2017 said: “I wanted to speak on behalf of the racial perspective I feel students were lacking throughout Wayne schools.”
“I personally do not remember more than one black teacher from all my years away public schools,” she said. “This was the norm, and my peers and I have lacked vital context for understanding the true depth and nature of the oppression and issues of the black experience since we do not have teachers themselves who could communicate this experience.”
The comments made during the meeting were addressed at the very end when BOE Vice President Suzanne Pudup said: “I want to thank the people who called in tonight.” Pudup grew emotional as she said: “Change is hard, especially when you are talking about racism. This hits very close to home for me.”
BOE President Cathy Kazan agreed. “I share your passion and emotion in this, Mrs. Pudup,” she said. “I have an African American god-child who is 34-years-old, and I have a Hispanic god-daughter who is 21 years-old; and I’ve seen the difficulties that they face in their lives, so this is important to me as well.”
TAPinto reached out to Dr. Toback and asked the Superintendent a few questions about the evening’s comments.
Have you as a district been addressing racial comments and racial bullying in the schools?
“We have been,” he replied. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but we are required to do so by law and by district policy and regulations.”
Why were the incidents mentioned during the meeting unaddressed?
“We do not discount the claims of any former students, but none of them provided enough information to look back on any prior incidents,” said Toback. “In these cases, details are very important."
How are reported racial incidents handled by the district?
“Details really matter in these cases, so the answer is: ‘it depends,” he said. “It depends on a great many things and it also depends on what is reported in terms of severity, frequency, etc. It also depends on what claims can be verified during the course of an investigation. After investigation, there are a number of alleged HIB cases that are handled as code of conduct violations. The bottom line is, for each reported case there is always a thorough investigation.”
Is Racism of any kind tolerated in the Wayne Public School system?
“No,” he answered with vehemence. “Racism in any form is destructive to our mission and goals as an educational institution.”