METUCHEN – Current students and alumni of the Metuchen School District, as well as parents, flooded Schools Superintendent Vincent Caputo’s email inbox calling for more racism awareness and diversity in the district’s curriculum in the wake of the events in Minneapolis.
And after fielding the more than 200-plus correspondences and listening to about 100 students during a student organized Zoom meeting on June 5, changes are being made.
George Floyd, an African American man, died after Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes after pinning him to the ground during an arrest on May 25. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder on May 29. Three other officers, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, were charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder on June 3.
Richard Cohen, assistant superintendent, said at a Board of Education meeting on June 9 of the 200 emails, 33 contained personal accounts of racism in the Metuchen schools.
“I want to ensure everyone that Dr. Caputo and I read carefully and thoughtfully all those accounts as well as components of all emails and understand the importance of the messages, stories, feelings and perspectives that were shared,” he said, adding he appreciated the courage of the students who shared the personal accounts of racism.
School officials said from the number of experiences, anecdotes and incidences shared with the district, there was a common theme: a strong need for a more inclusive curriculum with more focus on African American history and Civil Rights matters of racism in America and a need for more diversity among authors offered in the classroom.
The students through a petition called for the changes to curriculum and for more cultural awareness and sensitivity education.
“The district has been asked to look and improve our curriculum offerings and practices on race and racism,” Cohen said. “We will continue to listen. … This is not the end of the conversation beyond all the emails.”
Cohen said with the feedback, the district is moving to conduct an audit on authors offered in English language arts and social studies; revise the social studies curriculum to provide more focus on diversity, racism, Civil Rights and oppression; and to teach empathy, compassion, social awareness and problem solving.
“We want to teach kids to have a voice, how to protest with non-violence in a civically engaged society,” he said.
Cohen said the district has already began to work with Rutgers University on the implementation of the state’s Amistad law, which went into effect in 2019. It ensures students learn about the history of enslavement and its impact on the nation’s development.
Along with the curriculum, Cohen said the district has also began work to provide professional development and support for teachers and staff on empathy awareness, and compassion especially on topics of Amistad, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer), disabilities, Holocaust and genocide.
Cohen said Metuchen has a lot of things to be proud of and also things to work on to provide an equal representation and opportunity for all district students. He said it’s also important to have discussions on issues of race and racism and provide a safe place for the dialogue. He said another Zoom meeting is scheduled for June 16.
Board member Brian Glassberg said it’s also important to address the achievement gap in the district. He said in his 25 years in education, he has seen countless of times students placed in lower level classes not based on potential, but rather the student “did not act as a higher level student.”
“It doesn’t take racial sensitivity to know what that word means,” he said.
Glassberg recommended more parent outreach, public dialogue, more Saturday and summer classes for students in need of improvement.
“Beyond our district, we need to advocate to make standardized tests more fair and equitable,” he said.
Glassberg shared his parents moved to Metuchen in 1972. The real estate agent warned his parents about moving into the neighborhood because of the many black families who lived nearby.
“I can’t live your life, to know what it’s like to grow up as a minority in Metuchen,” he said. “But experiences taught me that the fight for fairness and equality does not end when the protests do. It will be your whole life if you accept that challenge.”
He implored the black and brown students of age in Metuchen to vote and run for office.
“Take a look at us here on the screen, you have some allies, but we don’t have diversity,” he said. “The students said they need more students and teachers that look like they do and I would say there is a need for more elected officials that look like they do.”
Board member Ben Small, who is board liaison to the borough’s Human Relations Commission (HRC), said an appropriate phrase has come out of HRC discussions and meetings.
“We can be better allies,” he said.
Small said the BOE is governed by the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Bill of Rights Act passed in 2011. He read excerpts of the legislation at the meeting.
“The last two weeks have been sobering for us all, for the local community and country,” he said. “We can be better allies and do a lot better. I reference [this] legislation because we govern by that and what it tells me is that we’re failing collectively as a community and as an organization.”
Small said the district’s failings and shortcomings are evident from the stories heard on the recent Zoom call and the correspondence received by the superintendent.
“We need a lot of work and not just in one area, curriculum, how we treat each other in general has a long way to go,” he said.
Hazel-Anne Johnson-Marcus, co-chair of the HRC, said the commission was formed to raise awareness around human rights issues and work towards fostering an inclusive sense of community in the borough.
She said since the events in Minneapolis, members of the commission have been working together to ensure all community members feel appreciated and welcome in the borough. She said the HRC is encouraged the district is including black voices in the curriculum and addressing systemic racism head on.
The HRC includes two Metuchen High School students, senior Jordan Valliquette and junior Max Rubin.
The HRC organized a peaceful protest and rally for social justice on June 13 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park with NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) of Metuchen-Edison, student groups led by MHS4BLM (Metuchen High School for Black Lives Matter) and local organizers with Speak Up NJ. The event was coordinated with the approval of the borough and Metuchen Police Department.
The event included statements from local community organizers, students and borough officials and information stations with voter registration.
This was the second event held in Metuchen. The first event was held on May 31 with the support of the NAACP and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, which drew 300 people.