WESTFIELD, NJ — Two days after Westfield High School students riding a wave of nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s killing recounted for some 2,000 protesters instances of racism they had witnessed in their own local public schools, the district’s leadership discussed reexamining its practices.
Board of Education President Peggy Oster at this week’s virtual school board meeting acknowledged that fighting hate in the schools is a work in progress and said she would like to have a board workshop to further examine the curriculum and discuss possible changes.
“We have to continue to learn,” Oster said. “We have to continue to make changes. And we can’t just assume that because it worked before, it’s still working now.”
Superintendent Margaret Dolan, at the meeting, read from a prepared statement.
“We acknowledge and investigate acts of hatred in our schools, and impose consequences, legal or otherwise, on identified perpetrators,” Dolan said. “We condemn all acts of racism, antisemitism, bigotry and expressions of hatred. Our administrators and educators work hard at every grade level to teach our students to respect themselves and those around them, to accept each other’s differences, and to speak out against prejudice and discrimination.”
Dolan said she had recently heard from parents, alumni and current students, many of whom asked what the district is doing to combat hate.
“We have worked to improve our curriculum to better address racism, anti-Semitism and other shameful acts, both historically and present-day,” Dolan said, adding that the topic is addressed in English and history lessons at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
Dolan said the new elective course “Power, Privilege and Imbalance in America,” available to juniors and seniors at Westfield High School, is designed to “educate and foster a discussion among students about the history of minority groups in the United States.” The board approved the course in December by a 6-3 vote.
The district is also purchasing additional texts for classroom libraries that Dolan said will “provide a richer and more diverse experience” for students.
“We know there is more work to be done, and we cannot do it alone,” Dolan added. “I continue to be grateful for the ongoing partnership with our students, parents and community members. We are listening, and we will continue to listen.”
At the protest June 7, students had offered strident criticisms both of the district’s black history education and its handling of racially charged bullying incidents.
“The Westfield School district has failed me over and over again, for over a decade,” said protest organizer and Westfield High School junior Nala Scott, 16. “I’m not going into that school senior year fearing for my safety. … I’m not going to walk into that school fearing I’m going to get bullied again.”
Board member Gretchan Ohlig, who attended the protest, called the demonstration an “incredible display of bravery” from students, and said the district should be open to criticism in order to change for the better.
“In order for us to really make an impact, we need to be willing to hear more difficult things and willing to be open to it,” Ohlig said.
Board member Michael Bielen also advocated for increased student input.
“I think we need to get the students involved,” Bielen said. “Some of the students have concerns, and I think we need to listen firsthand about what their concerns are and go and address those if they do exist within the school.”
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