As protesters made their voices heard as part of the Black Lives Matter movement across the nation in June and July, the Lawrence Township Public School District found itself dealing with racial unrest within its midst.
Members of the community spoke during the school board’s virtual meetings, stating that they believe the district needs to do a better job dealing with Black students and hiring a more diverse staff.
In addition, a campaign called #BlackInLawrenceNJ has been created online with the goal of, “sharing the experiences of Black families, students, teachers and visitors in Lawrence.”
One common allegation among those speaking out is that Black students are funneled into remedial education programs and away from honors, gifted and talented and advanced placement classes.
In an effort to address racial issues, the district has hired consultants to review LTPS’s policies on the hiring of staff, as well as to help identify inequality within the district.
During the June 10 meeting, which was held virtually over Google Meet, superintendent Ross Kasun said that the district had received many comments and questions from the community regarding equity, diversity and its response to racism.
To that end, the district adopted a resolution stating that LTPS is committed training and self-education on the issue.
“We decisively believe that Black lives matter, Black students matter, Black educators matter and Black teammates matter,” said Kasun. “We absolutely denounce racism, and we are committed to fighting against it.”
He said that the district had held a “dialogue” several days earlier with more than 120 members of staff to read several articles and watch a video. This was followed by a discussion on race and diversity and how they can grow and improve.
“We have been working for years to hire more minority staff,” Kasun added, “so our team can be more representative of the students that we serve. Hiring a minority staff is a nation-wide problem in school districts, and we are doing much better than most, but we can do better.”
He said the average for the hiring of minority teachers is 9.5 percent statewide, and the Mercer County average is 12 percent. In comparison, the hire-rate for LTPS next year is 20 percent.
But overall, the candidate pool for teachers applying to the district who reported themselves as Black was only 5 percent. “That can’t stop us,” Kasun said. “We have to be more creative.”
Kasun said that the district had some initiatives in place, including partnerships with Rider and Rowan universities, to give them “pipelines to great minority candidates,” but they were all slowed down by the pandemic.
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During the public comment section of the June 10 meeting, a number of residents—many of them graduates of Lawrence High School—spoke out about their experiences in the district, stating that it must do better when it comes to racial equality.
“Your words are beautiful on paper,” said Nyya Toussaint of Gordon Avenue, who identified himself as a “K-12 lifer” of Lawrence Public Schools. “We have generation upon generation on this (board meeting) call who have experienced the racism and the white supremacy of this administration and the school district.”
“Though you may not have been there at that time, or you may not have been our teachers, you are still complicit, because our Black babies that we trust with you every day come home and tell us the stories,” he said.
He added that statements by school officials denouncing racism “are great, but that does not clean up the blood that has already been spilled. The words that have been said. The actions that have been done. Until we feel in our bones that we can trust you, we will be on top of you.”
Jasmine Surti of Fieldboro Drive said she is a parent of two children in the district. She said, “the resolution and the action items that Dr. Kasun discussed are positive steps, however the district needs to do much more to solve the racial inequities in our school system… We need to look no further than our own school district to find that some systemic racism is here in our town too.”
She said that LTPS staff does not reflect the makeup of the population of the students. “The statements and messages are nice, but we need concrete actions and quicker progress.”
She added: “I’m also calling on this board to ensure that parents and community members have a full opportunity to participate in developing practical plans and action steps towards creating greater equity and education among our students, teachers and administrators.”
Erika Smoots, a resident of Paddock Drive, is a teacher at Ben Franklin Elementary School and a parent of a graduate and a sophomore at LHS. “I’m losing faith and feeling hopelessness in this district, and this is a district that has made me what I am, but refuses to see me and value me as a Black educator and a parent.”
She said that she and her children “have been victims of systemic racism” during a lifetime of experiences in the Lawrence Township education system,
“As a student of this district, I was told by a white teacher that I would never amount to anything,” she said. “And over the course of my children’s years in Lawrence, they faced favoritism on their sports teams. They’ve been called liars and cheats.”
She also said that they had been persuaded to drop honors courses by teachers and administrators who urged them to take easier classes. “They’ve been told by guidance counselors that certain courses would be too hard for them and they would never get into their dream schools.”
She said that if members of the board had attended a recent Black solidarity march in the township, they would have found that, “virtually all Black children have experienced what my children have experienced, and some worse, in this district.”
Smoots then spoke about her experiences as a teacher. She said she has been in lunch rooms where teachers make racist comments about Black students and a lack of engagement by Black parents.
“I’ve been given classes that no one wanted, which affected my evaluations and have pushed me closer to burn out,” she said. “I’ve been denied interviews and faced conveniently changed hiring practices. I’ve been denied lateral jobs and the ability to advance in this district.
“I’ve applied for jobs in this district that I’m qualified for and have the skill set for, but I’m not considered because of cronyism and favoritism. I’m constantly overlooked, while young white gym, art and music teachers excel.”
Lawrence Road resident Adena Romeo-Ratliff, who conducted an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the school board last year, is the mother of three Black children who live in Lawrence. She said that she has sent two of her children to private schools “in order to receive an appropriate education.”
She said that there are inequities in the education of Black students in the district as evidenced by its reading and math proficiency scores, and that Black children in Lawrence are “grossly underrepresented” in gifted and talented and advanced placement classes.
Lisa Austin, an LHS graduate and Albemarle Road resident, said it was “astounding” to her that issues of racial inequality that were discussed when she was a student are still being talked about today.
“Just listening to Erica Smoots, those same conversations were going on then and still going now,” she said. “Our kids are being discouraged. We were being discouraged, and this is a real issue.”
Austin said that she is also concerned about the district’s recruiting process for teachers. She said she has served on staff recruiting committees in the past that looked to recruit Black educators, and they wanted candidates from schools like Howard and Spellman.
“Those (schools) are our Harvards and our Yales,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard pressed to get those particular types of [candidates]. We have great universities right here in New Jersey that we can be doing vetting for,” she said. “Why is it so difficult to find a great candidate that fits the criteria for Lawrence than it is someone who is not African-American.”
She added that her daughter was discouraged from taking honors classes, and she went on to graduate from Howard University as an English major. “But at Lawrence High, she was discouraged from taking honors English.”
Austin’s daughter, Shánece, also an LHS graduate, said she was the student her mother referred to. “I have multiple multiple stories about the injustice that I personally experienced.”
“The LTPS community expects faculty members to be us to be leaders, mentors and role models,” she said. “Yet, you have limited yourself to only academic influence. Black students need and deserve more from their district… Instead of acknowledging the injustice all over the news and all over the world, the LTPS Facebook page posted about National Ed. Day and National Iced Tea Day, which is a huge slap in the face.”
Meg Leventhal, a third grade teacher at Ben Franklin, read a letter that she said she sent to administration in June, but did not receive a response.
“This administration must address the way some administrators treat positive disruptors—the passionate and committed employees who attempt to challenge the status quo within LTPS,” she said. “To use the words of Martin Luther King Jr., ‘A disruptor provides continuous loving confrontation aimed at improving, not destroying, an institution.’”
She said that examples, which she said were first-hand, of what a disruptor can expect to experience in the district.
“In an attempt to shame you, you may have an administrator passive-aggressively reference one of your Tweets more than once in a district equity committee. That happened this year. You may have your emails and phone calls ignored. That happened this year. You may have professional opportunities withheld, or even revoked from you. That happened this year. You may have disciplinary letters placed in your personnel file.
“You may have your class stacked with both behaviorally and academically challenged students. You may be ignored or treated with contempt or disdain. You may be told by the administration that you are opinionated and pushy. You may be overlooked for teacher leadership or administrative opportunities in spite of your qualifications. You may have professional development withheld from you.
“You may be bullied and intimidated by your assigned teacher leaders. You may have your positive initiatives ignored or undermined. You may have your project development unfunded.
“You may be ignored when you request mentorship for your graduate internship. You may be reprimanded or humiliated publicly. And, as of this week, when students publicly request you as an advisor, you may have the opportunity usurped by administrators.”
Peter Oropeza of Branchwoood Court has two children in LTPS. He said he moved to Lawrence Township from South Texas, and has found the district to be “rather progressive for the most part,” in comparison. He said he is a psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association’s diversity and inclusion committee.
“You can’t be color blind, you have to be color conscious,” he said. “We all come with our own history and backgrounds, and I think it’s important that the teachers and the staff, including the board get educated.”
He pointed out that the school board’s membership—one Black woman, two caucasian men and six caucasian women—does not reflect the diversity of the community.
“If you look critically at yourselves, you’re not representative of our community—not even of my block here in Lawrenceville,” he said.
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The Lawrence School Board is not the only place that members of the community have demanded racial justice. Community members have created a group called #BlackInLawrenceNJ. The group has a website at blmlawrencenj.wixsite.com/ourdemands/actnow and is also on Instagram and Facebook.
A petition on the site states: “Due to the top-down and bottom-up tactics practiced in the United States, white supremacy and anti-Blackness have found their place in Lawrence Township, N.J., and made their bed in Lawrence Township Public Schools… We need revolutionary change in our town.”
The petition, which has been signed by more than 1,100 people, is officially endorsed by Fred Vereen, Jr., Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (Jackson is an assemblywoman and does not live in Lawrence), Shánece Austin, Renard Smoots, Erika Smoots, Nyya Toussaint, Roxanna Flores Toussaint, Tonia Moore, Lisa Austin, Romy Toussaint, Jennifer Minaya, Kyla Allen and Jaggar DeMarco.
The petition was presented to the School Board at its July 9 meeting by Nyya Toussaint. The petition makes a number of demands of the district, including:
1. Remove any law enforcement assigned to be present on a regular basis in Lawrence Township Public Schools by Jan. 1, 2021;
2. Establish a School Climate and Culture Leadership Team that directly responds to misbehavior by Jan. 1, 2021;
3. Eradicate detentions, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, involuntary expulsion by Sept. 1;
4. Take ownership of all #BlackInLawrenceNJ stories pertaining to the LTPS;
5. Hire a diversity, inclusion and equity coach by Jan. 1, 2021;
6. Institute school-day group therapy by Sept. 1.
7. Institute a PreK-12 humanities curriculum and courses that teach and center on Black experiences by Sept. 1.
8. Establish faculty-lead equity teams in each building that are predominantly made up of teachers who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and other minorities by Sept. 1.
9. Conduct an audit of current hiring practices and execute the hiring of Black staff by Jan. 1, 2021;
10. Embrace and actively support district-wide Black student organizations led by Black students by Sept. 1; and
11. Embrace and actively support a distinct-wide minority teacher organization led by Black professional staff by Sept. 1.
The #BlackInLawrenceNJ site solicits stories about “anti-Blackness in Lawrence Township’s neighborhoods, school district, businesses and police department” and then posts them anonymously. “We seek to disrupt Lawrence’s false narratives of being progressive, anti-racist and strong,” states the group.
Many of the posts feature unsubstantiated allegations against educators or administrators in the school district. The names of the people cited in the posts are not being reported by the Gazette as a matter of policy.
One poster said that in 2014, “A fellow classmate thought it was funny to post a picture of me and my best friend with ropes tied around our necks to portray the image of us being lynched. When I vocalized my opinion, our math teacher did not want to look or believe that this was what was in the photo.”
A former LTPS student reported being spit on in fifth grade in 2004 by a white student on the school bus and called a “n***a” and a “stupid b***h.”
Another resident reported going to a local business for a haircut and being turned away after being told to go somewhere else because they “don’t cut Black hair.”
One story talks about a 2011 incident where the poster’s son, a student at Eldridge Park School, scored a perfect 300 on the NJASK test but was placed in a remedial math class when he went to Lawrence Intermediate School.
The parent spoke with school officials regarding the situation and provided his report card and test scores.
“When I went to the meeting I was given some BS about the multiple measures they used. Then I pulled out the binder with my son’s information.” The parent was then told that a mistake had been made. The student transferred to an independent school.
Another poster said that in 2013 he/she was one of the few Black people taking AP calculus at the time. “We had all gotten our report cards after midterms, which also included recommendations for next year’s classes. Although I had met the requirements, I wasn’t recommended to continue in AP.” A white classmate with a lower average was recommended.
In an incident reported to have happened in 2002, the poster said that his/her son was a student at Lawrenceville Elementary School who was driven to and from school. “He was outside waiting for me and his teacher assumed because he was Black, he lived in Eggerts Crossing Village and forced my crying son on the bus… LES played down the incident like it could happen to anyone.”
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In response to the community’s concerns, the Lawrence School Board has made several moves, including the hiring of consultants to review the district’s policies.
The district retained consultant Kenneth King to review the LTPS’ hiring practices. Kasun said that King will work with the district’s leadership team in August to help strengthen the district’s hiring practices, systems and consistency of approach.
King, a graduate of Rider University, is retired from the East Orange School District, where he served as assistant superintendent for human resource service. Since his retirement in September 2009 King has worked as an educational consultant and teaches a cohort of doctoral students at Kean University and the College of Saint Elizabeth.
The district has also hired consultants Val Brown and Rebekah Anne Cordova to provide professional development to work with teacher leaders and administrators regarding equity, diversity and preventing racism. Kasun said the two are “national leaders” in the area.
They will also develop, plan and design professional development that will be delivered to all members of staff when schools open in September, Kasun said.
Kasun said there are plans to start an equity committee in every building. “They will come out and share their work, because that’s where they roll up the sleeves and get the work done.”
He said they also need to find a “mechanism” so that the community can hear more about the efforts of LTPS’ “amazing staff.”
The district will also create an equity team at each school, Kasun said, and has reached out to the state Department of Justice’s Community Relation Services Division for help designing a community event “that includes opportunities to listen, share and grow.”
The district has entered into an agreement with Panorama Education of Boston, Massachusetts, to help conduct a climate audit of its students in the fall. “This will be a benchmark and will be able to measure areas of strength and areas to be improved,” Kasun said. “It will give us a baseline of whether our efforts through the year will improve the feelings of equity, inclusion and anti-racism.”
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