Parents ‘not satisfied’ with treatment of black students in Lawrence school district

Acknowledging the need to eliminate racism in the schools, the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education has pledged to identify inequities within the school district and to promote access and opportunity for all students.

The goal was outlined in a resolution that was adopted at the school board’s June 10 meeting. It states that the district is committed to taking part in training and self-education “so that we may advance racial equity and justice throughout this district in all of the policies and regulations that we establish.”

“We believe that black lives matter, black students matter, black educators matter and black teenagers matter. We are committed to dismantling racism. It is our duty,” said Ross Kasun, the superintendent of schools.

But several parents quickly let the school board know that they were not satisfied. Some of the parents, who are themselves graduates of Lawrence High School, took the school board to task for the district’s treatment of black students.

Erika Smoots, who teaches in the Lawrence Township Public Schools and who is a Lawrence High School graduate, said change will only happen if the people in power are willing to listen.

Smoots said that she and her children have been victims of systemic racism. She recalled that when she was a student at Lawrence High School, a white teacher told her that she would never amount to anything.

Smoots said her children have faced favoritism on their sports teams, and were called liars and cheats. They were persuaded to drop honors courses by guidance counselors because the courses would be too difficult for them, she said.

“I am losing faith and feeling hopelessness in this district, which refuses to value me as a black educator and as a parent. Please listen. Be empathetic. Let’s talk about being an anti-racist district,” Smoots said.

Nyya Toussaint, who graduated from Lawrence High School, said he wanted the school board to be mindful that “racism is a generational thing. Generation upon generation has experienced racism and white supremacy by the administration of this district.”

“You may not have been there at that time or been our teacher, but you are still complicit because our babies come home every day and tell us their stories,” Toussaint said. “So your words are beautiful on paper, but if we as black people do not feel them in our bones, that is an issue. Until we feel it in our bones that we can trust you, we will be on top of you.”

Lisa Austin, who is a Lawrence High School graduate, said that “it is just astounding to me that we are still here talking about this. Listening to Erika (Smoots), it is the same conversation that was going on then. Our children were discouraged. We were discouraged.”

Austin expressed concern about the recruitment process. The school district is seeking out graduates of Howard University and Spelman College – the historically black universities “that are our Harvard and Yale,” she said.

On the other hand, there are many colleges and universities in New Jersey, Austin said. She said she does not understand why it is so challenging to find black candidates for teaching positions.

Kasun said the district has tried to attract more minority staff, but it is a nationwide problem. The average number of minority teachers in Mercer County public school districts is 12%, but in the Lawrence school district, minority teachers make up 20% of the staff, he said.

Another parent suggested that there may be unconscious bias, and that the school board and the staff need to be educated about it. “You can’t be ‘color blind,’ but you can be ‘color conscious,'” he said.

He said the makeup of the school board itself is not reflective of the diversity of Lawrence. He quickly added that he is not implying that the school board  is doing a “horrible job, (but) if you look critically at yourselves, you are not representative of our community.”

The nine-member school board consists of two white men, six white women and one black woman. The U.S. Census Bureau statistics state that white persons made up 63% of the township’s population; blacks made up 11%; Asians accounted for 14%; and Hispanics were 8% in 2019. Women make up 52% of the population.

The Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education is an elected school board. Residents file a petition to run for election to the school board, unlike the Trenton Public Schools Board of Education whose members are appointed by the Mayor.