Residents and Officials Discuss Diversity and Implicit Bias Issues at West Orange Human Relations Commission Meeting  

Roger Apollon Jr. spoke about how well his transgender son, Jax, has been accepted at West Orange High School Credits: Alan Grossman
A large crowd came out for the West Orange Human Relations Committee (HRC) Town Hall Meeting. Credits: Alan Grossman
HRC Chair Tammy Williams addresses the crowd. Credits: Alan Grossman

WEST ORANGE, NJ – West Orange resident Roger Apollon, Jr. told the large crowd and officials at the West Orange Human Relations Commission Town Hall meeting on Wednesday how fortunate he feels to be living in a community that has done everything possible to make his transgender son, Jax, feel welcome.

Apollon said that Jax, who was born Amelia, has been accepted at West Orange High School by both students and faculty.

“Principal Hayden Moore has told me that he will support Jax in whatever he needs, and he can use whatever bathroom facilities he wants,” said Apollon. “That kind of caring stays with me.”

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He added that his son’s situation reflects the township’s commitment to diversity.

“We are good neighbors to each other,” he said. “The large turnout of people at this meeting tonight says something about our town.”

Tony Edelstein, a teacher at West Orange High School, said that he was pleased to hear from the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance that no incidents of bias have been reported at the high school.

Tammy Williams, chairwoman of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, said the township has come a long way in accepting diversity, but that its residents can continue to “learn from each other.”

“More people should reach out to their neighbors and get to know them better,” she said. “While we’re concerned about the global community, let’s remember to take care of our home.”

Mayor Robert Parisi said that at the local level, it is volunteerism that builds a strong, united community. He urged people in the audience to get involved with one of many volunteer opportunities that are offered in West Orange.

When asked why he did not want to declare West Orange a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, Parisi said this is not something that is needed in West Orange because the state law protects immigrants who are already living in New Jersey.

“We don’t need a sanctuary city to protect people from the government or police,” he said. “And, our police department doesn’t have the resources to focus on this issue. We have no intention to search for illegal aliens when our police have more important things to do.”

Chief of Police James Abbott told the crowd that the West Orange Police Department has no list of undocumented aliens. He said police officers cannot ask a person about his or her citizen status unless they have been arrested for a felony.

Abbott said that his department’s police officers will undergo implicit bias training, which is being offered online by New Jersey Learn. He said implicit bias is not something one can eliminate completely, but it’s important for people to be more aware of making sure they listen carefully to people who come from different kinds of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and try to understand their points of view.

Pastor Douglas Adams, of the J.O.Y. Church of God, thanked Abbott and the police department for assisting all religious institutions with their security issues.

“When an emergency happens, we can be more of who we are, and not be drawn into a negative social narrative,” he said.

John Sayer, business administrator for the township, said that West Orange was the first municipality in New Jersey to have a dedicated bias incident officer.

“If there is any report of possible bias, this officer will take the complaint,” he said.

Since West Orange hired a bias incident officer, the state has mandated that other municipalities must do the same thing.

When asked about President Trump’s remarks that the press is the enemy of the people, Assemblyman John McKeon, a former West Orange mayor said, “An attack on a free, independent press is the beginning of fascism.”

Susan Anderson, public information officer for West Orange, said the real issue to be concerned about regarding the press is that its reporting is as accurate as possible. She said that the advent of Internet news has increased the spreading of wrong information that is picked up by different news sources quickly.

“Everyone wants to be first, and they aren’t always right,” said Anderson, who added that writers and editors need to take more time to fact check before an article goes out.

When it comes to biased and/or hate language on social media sites, Abbott said that his department investigates every social media complaint to determine if a credible offense has occurred. He said that if the police believe there is evidence for a case, they bring it to the Essex County prosecutor, who determines if the complaint is actionable and should be brought to court. 

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