WEST ORANGE, NJ — As the nation continues to reel from the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an African American who recently died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) took the time to reflect at Monday’s meeting on how they could help teachers, students, and the community heal this painful chapter in American history.
“These are very challenging times,” board member Gary Rothstein said, adding that that now is an especially important time to remember that the concepts of social justice and that knowledge of history and current events is critical.
In addition to these points, he continued that the mission of public school education is to raise children to be successful citizens and “decent human beings who can pick up the tools and the materials that we’ve left for them and continue to build a better world than the one we have right now.”
Quoting former NBA basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who recently wrote an op-ed in the Lost Angeles Times, Rothstein said, ‘“racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant because it’s always still in the air.”’
In response, board member Jennifer Tunnicliffe said that everyone must be “more cognizant of shining that light continually, not just in time of crisis and time of horror,” especially in the school district because doing that will help to “foster understanding and kindness and compassion” in students.
Even though the WOBOE would go on to release a public statement sharing its collective outrage over social injustice and inequity on Tuesday morning, board Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales shared an abbreviated version of a statement that she had posted on Facebook.
She said, “riddled with emotions, my heart palpitates with sorrow and anger. My eyes fill with tears and I hear George Floyd’s cry for his mother. I think of my black son and recall the countless times that he has called out to me to help him, solve his problems, to rescue him, to explain racist acts directed at him, to allay his fears and just to be there for him and love him. That’s what mothers do. That’s what George was pleading for, help, a rescue, his life.”’
She continued, that as a product of the Civil Rights era, she has experienced ‘“racism, bigotry, injustice and hateful ignorance,”’ but despite this she is committed to living by the golden rule, ‘“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”’
‘“It may sound very cliché,”’ she continued, ‘“but I can do more; I can feel more; I can help more; I can understand more; I can empathize more; I can express more and I can be more…
‘“I’m asking you to commit to more good in this world,”’ she said. ‘“Each one of us, like a single droplet of water can work together to form a wave of equity, justice, compassion, kindness, empathy, and trust to wash away the hatred, the violence and inhumanity to man. George Floyd, we hear you.”’
After publishing its initial statement on Tuesday, which was received as tone deaf and vague by the public, the WOBOE apologized and acknowledged “the need for more direct and thoughtful communication” and provided an updated statement on Wednesday.
“We join all families in sadness over the wrongful death of George Floyd,” the statement reads. “At no point was our intention to minimize the pain that so many of our West Orange families and staff are experiencing or fail to recognize and reaffirm that Black Lives Matter.”
The statement continued that the WOBOE is committed to working with the administration and community to “create sustainable action” and amplify the work that the board has done, outlined in their Equity Access Plan, to ensure the equity of black/brown students and their families.
During the meeting, West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J Scott Cascone also provided a statement during Monday’s meeting sending thoughts and prayers to all families and communities impacted by recent events.
After meeting with principals this week, Cascone said that it was clear that many teachers throughout the district were putting “immediate academic work” on hold to “provide open and safe forums for students to share their feelings and perspectives.”
“Were we able to develop a fully cohesive instructional approach to addressing the recent events over the weekend?” Cascone asked. “No, we were not, however, planning in response to our students’ needs has been at the top of the list of priorities today.”
Working with the Student Counseling and Social Studies departments, Cascone explained that the district has been able to mobilize resources to assist students in understanding these events and help guide their “desire and efforts to lend their voice to peaceful assemblies and demonstrations.”
At the West Orange High School (WOHS), Principal Hayden Moore has actively been engaged in discussion with student leaders on this topic, and Cascone reaffirmed that the district “will continue to support these efforts through both the instructional process as well as some of many extracurricular clubs such as diversity club, GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) and African and Asian Heritage clubs.”
Cascone also mentioned that after having productive discussions with Tom Puryear, President of a local unit of the NAACP which serves the Oranges, he and the district are committed to “working together for the benefit of our community’s youngsters.”
The superintendent continued that the district will continue to work on the recently rebranded diversity, equity and access committee, which will put emphasis on equitable hiring practices, culturally responsive teaching and curriculum, relevant professional development for administrators and staff—which will take place this year over the summer—and examining areas of disproportionality which exist in the district, including suspensions, student achievement and access.
After hearing from members of district’s leadership team who are also men of color, the superintendent said that he reflected on the reality that “they felt obliged to have a conversation with their children, about exercising caution relative to how they comport themselves in public and that their parents had that same conversation with them when they were younger.
“The truth of the matter is that my parents didn’t have that conversation with me and they didn’t have to,” he said continuing that while he has counseled his daughters about protecting themselves as women, he did not have to “relative to their race.”
“That just simply should not be the case in our country,” he said. “And so as an individual and as I always have over the course of my career, I commit to continuing to be an advocate for what is right and just, and as a superintendent of schools commit to leading and nurturing an environment in which all students have instilled in them a sense of worth, value and voice.”
During public comment, West Orange residents including Dr. Akil Khalfani and Khabirah Myers asked for these current events to be incorporated into the district’s Amistad curriculum. Resident Danielle Robinson also asked the WOBOE about the current state of the diversity committee which, according to Robinson, has not formally met or communicated with its members since February.
“As important as any academic lesson is for students to learn how to be more engaged in social justice, anti-racist curriculum for the students, as well as for the teachers,” she said. “It is not enough to just be nice to people. We have to actually dismantle these systems in power.”
West Orange resident and allergy mom, Nicole Ruffo commented that many parents have been coming to the board for years asking for important changes. “We’ve been asking for the curriculum to be revisited and used correctly in all grade levels. We’ve asked for the staff to participate in courageous conversations on race.”
She continued that as a white woman and an ally, she’s still learning about what words such as “white privilege,” “equity,” “anti-racism,” and “Black Lives Matter” mean, but that the entire community of educators, students and families need to be “on the same page with this knowledge in this conversation.”
Ruffo also thanked the board, Cascone, Director of Special Services Kristin Gogerty, and the nurses for their work on the Management of Life-threatening Allergies in Schools policy, which was unanimously adopted after its second reading on Monday.
“This is a very important life or death situation for our family and it’s just going to be wonderful that there’s actually a policy to protect students in the school,” she said also thanking the district for incorporating lessons on food allergies during food allergy week. “And if you can do that for allergy awareness, then I’m sure the curriculum can grow for awareness on anti-racism.”
The next virtual WOBOE meeting is scheduled for June 15 at 7:30 p.m., but it may be moved to June 22.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The story was ammended to include an updated statement from the WOBOE.]