After reports of multiple racially insensitive incidents happening within the Hamilton Township School District, concerned community members attended the Feb. 27 Board of Education meeting to ask the school board to address cultural diversity in the district.
Saint Phillips Baptist Church Pastor Joseph E. Woods, members of his congregation and county officials spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to express their concerns about race relations and outline ways they hope to work with the board to address the issues.
“There must be an urgency to confront the inequalities in our district among our students and staff, as reflected by some recent incidents dealing with race relations,” Woods said.
Woods was referring to a February incident at a Nottingham High School Black History Month assembly. A student posted a photo of a gospel choir on Snapchat with a caption referring to the performance as slave auction. Someone took a screenshot of the photo, and it quickly circulated around the school and the district.
The student who posted the Snapchat photo was disciplined, and principal Frank Ragazzo made an announcement that same day, telling the school the photo does not represent who Northstars are or what they value.
While swift action was taken by the staff at Nottingham, community members want to use this as an opportunity to further investigate race relations within the district.
“I know that there are a lot of people here who have been outraged by what was said, or what was done and posted on [social media],” Mercer County Freeholder Samuel Frisby said. “I think the administration handled it the proper way—you handled it swiftly and you dealt with it—but there’s an opportunity here for us to really work with our young people and begin to create some healing.”
Community members cited other racially insensitive incidents during the meeting, including the eight Steinert High students who were disciplined for filming themselves making jokes using the N-word last fall.
“No gospel choir at a Black History Month program should be referred to as a slave auction, and no one in this district should be comfortable to say or hear the N-word in a conversation, a joke, a song or a car,” Woods said.
Woods said Saint Phillips Baptist Church members came to the board in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration to help enhance multiethnic education and to foster a greater sense of sensitivity to cultural diversity in Hamilton. The church often partners with the school district for events and fundraisers, and while Woods said he wants to remain open to the partnership, he is gravely concerned about how cultural diversity is handled within the township.
‘Here’s an opportunity for us to really get together, get young people in the room… to begin to have dialogue and talk about our differences.’
Woods cited data from the New Jersey Department of Education that states Hamilton has a 19.1 percent black population in the district, yet black students represent 47.3 percent of in-school suspensions, 47.7 percent of out-of-school suspensions, and 44.4 percent of the referrals district schools make to law enforcement.
He also expressed concerns that the school district isn’t in compliance in the area of black history, despite board policy No. 2260 that declares African American history to be infused in the curriculum throughout the year—not only taught during Black History Month.
He outlined three things his congregation and other community members want from the board, and he offered the board his assistance to help complete them.
First, community members want a complete report reflecting how the school district embraces African American history during the month of February, and what attempts have been made—or are being made—to infuse that history into the curriculum throughout the year.
Community members are also asking the board to look into the suspension data within the district. In addition to a report showing a breakdown of the suspension rates by ethnicity and school, they want to know what the board plans to do to lower the suspension rates.
Finally, Woods asked the board to hold a town hall meeting at some point this year on the subject of cultural diversity in an attempt to provide professional development sensitivity training.
School Board President Pamela Kelly and newly appointed Superintendent Scott Rocco reaached out to Woods and scheduled a meeting at the end of March to discuss how they can work together to improve race relations.
“We’ve been at a point the last couple of years where we’ve really just been playing nice, right? People say things that are nice, but they don’t always say what they think and they don’t always say what they feel,” Frisby said. “Here’s an opportunity for us to really get together, get young people in the room, get people in the room to begin to have dialogue and talk about our differences and talk about what we’re like because we have a lot more in common than differences.”