The Montclair Civil Rights Commission sent a letter this week to Montclair School Superintendent Penny MacCormack, the Board of Education and Town Council indicating “apparently increasing allegations of racial mistreatment and the rising level of frustration that members of the African American population are communicating” regarding students’ experiences in Montclair Schools.
The letter was a follow up to a Civil Rights Commission meeting in March in which about 30 residents, mostly parents, complained about numerous incidents that they believed were racially charged, including broken noses at the hands of white students, charges pressed by a teacher against an African American eleventh grader for what she alleges was a pencil thrown at her, and a teacher who had been reprimanded for unnecessarily placing African American boys in special education classes, but who was promoted and still remains in the district today.
According to the letter, the common themes in the parents’ recent complaints were segregated classes, unequal access to AP courses and small learning communities, inequity in meting out suspensions and other discipline, and abusive behavior and racial insensitivity.
“One of the things that registered with me in March was that a lot of people who came and voiced their experiences felt there wouldn’t be follow through,” said Joe Kavesh, civil rights commission chair and longtime Montclair resident.
The Civil Rights Commission is an advisory board to the Township Council. Kavesh, says its role is to listen to residents, investigate issues and make recommendations to the Town Council and the Board of Education.
Superintendent MacCormack responded swiftly to the letter with a letter of her own, extending an invitation to meet with members of the Civil Rights Commission as soon as possible.
“Montclair simply has no tolerance for racial discrimination. Receiving a thorough update and working closely together to address this issue would be of great value to me and the Montclair Public Schools,” the letter read in part.
Board of Education President Robin Kulwin said “the BOE, the Superintendent, teachers and staff, members of the Achievement Gap panel as well as the CRC share a common goal and a sense of urgency – to ensure that all students are treated with respect, are encouraged to pursue opportunities, and receive a high quality education.”
Kavesh pointed out that many of the issues about which parents expressed concern –racial insensitivity, higher suspension rates, unequal access to AP and higher level classes – are not exclusive to Montclair. A report released last month by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the first analysis in nearly 15 years from all of the country’s 97,000 public schools, appears to mirror what is happening in Montclair. The report found that black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, have less access to rigorous math and science classes and are taught by lower paid teachers with less experience. Among the most glaring data, the study found that while black children make up just 18 percent of preschool enrollment, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African American.
Civil Rights Commissioner Kelia Sweatt said African American parents have been expressing pain and frustration for years.
“Our children of African descent are definitely being treated inappropriately and mishandled and it’s just part of the culture,” she said. “I would like to see a real, honest effort to correct the social ills that have been permitted to fester in our schools.”
Kavesh said he hopes parents will feel comfortable going to Civil Rights Commission meetings to speak their mind and that the Commission will continue to serve as a channel of communication for the Board of Education.
“The Civil Rights Commission is not anti-teacher and is not anti-BOE, but if there are bad experiences relayed to us, at the very least we can start a dialog, “ Kavesh said.
Kavesh said he expects the Commission will meet with MacCormack sometime over the next two weeks.