We, members of the Princeton Public School’s (PPS) Black Parents Affinity Group, express our concern and anger regarding recent events involving the publication of a disturbing video which includes images of former and current students singing racist and homophobic lyrics including the n-word.
In addition to our concern about the video, we are deeply troubled by the responses of representatives of the school district. We demand that the BOE acknowledge the harm caused by this incident and the school district’s response, investigate and address the behavior of the High School Principal Jessica Baxter, require the development of a mandatory racial literacy course in the high school and immediately review the efficacy of the Peer Group program as it relates to students of color.
In a July 12 email to the PPS community, Principal Baxter vaguely discussed the video, detailed why she was not able to appropriately address the matter and explained that she took several actions. She indicated that she met with the students in the video and their parents. She also stated that she contacted students not involved in the video.
Moreover, since the students in the video have been, or will be, Peer Group leaders, there is a clear nexus between their behavior, the principal’s actions, and disruption of the school. Taken together, Principal Baxter’s actions harm our children and worsen the racial climate of the school.
The Board of Education must show leadership and act now to remediate present and prevent perpetual harm done to our children in this district. This incident and its handling cannot be dismissed merely as a parental matter. The issues go much deeper, and demand Board of Education attention.
In her email regarding the students’ offensive singing, Principal Baxter wrote “I do not condone this…” and described being in touch with the students in the video and their families. She also described that she “hears the hurt and disappointment” of other students, and regrets that “learning and understanding is difficult to facilitate right now.” Her letter concludes that children are not perfect and that children should not have to expect to be hurt by their friends. She concludes by mentioning PHS’s commitment to “working on an online racial literacy course to be offered this coming school year.”
Sadly, this video and the principal’s inadequate response to it are part of a longer pattern with implications for the racial climate of the school and the mental health of students. Threats and intimidation harm students and disrupt learning.
Being party to intimidation of students and parents who raise legitimate concerns about the offensive video has obvious implications for the school’s climate and the disruption of education.
Our concerns go beyond the video itself and beyond adding racial literacy to the school’s racial climate, as exemplified by the fact that two or three of the young people in the video singing the n-word have been peer group leaders at PHS this past year; one of them is going to be a peer group leader this coming year. Peer group leaders are seniors selected by the school’s administration to help middle school students transition to high school. The goal is to help freshmen connect to the school. Peer group leaders are supposed to exemplify positive qualities. Yet, these student “leaders” exhibit the types of insulting behavior that has long-term effects on children in the school whether it be during or after school or during the summer break. This matter cannot be brushed off as a summer mishap. What does it say about PHS that these peer group “leaders” students are the ones featured in this offensive video? Principal Baxter does not address that issue in her message to the community. We demand that the Board of Education acknowledge that this incident and the way it has been mishandled highlights serious deficiencies at PHS, and that it indicates a pressing need for stronger support for students of color at PHS.
We need effective leadership. PHS needs true educators and leaders in this moment – leadership committed to the health, education and well-being of all students. We call on the Board of Education to acknowledge that this incident is not merely about a video. The board must look more deeply at the Peer Group program, investigate the principal’s intimidation, examine the racial climate of the school. Principal Baxter’s message to the community seeks to bury all of these issues. We call on the school board will stand with us. Our children deserve an even-handed response, fairness and justice from Principal Baxter; true leadership demands proactive support for those who are hurt, insulted, and harmed by these events.
It is simply not enough to say “I do not condone” this behavior. A principal must say what kinds of respectful behavior they expect from our students. Most important, a principal cannot be allowed to engage in the uneven practice of listening sympathetically to some voices while seeking to squelch others. This is the exact opposite of what PHS needs at this moment. We call on the school board to stand with us in denouncing this action. We demand a fair-minded investigation of the principal’s actions followed by appropriate discipline.
PHS’s racial climate is a mental health concern; the climate is made worse by the principal’s actions. Sadly, this practice is part of an insidious pattern at PHS with long-term implications for the school’s climate, for the mental health and educational experiences of Black and Brown children. The mental health of our children is a far-reaching issue that permeates every aspect of their lives. The behavior on display in this video and the indifference in the principal’s response has plagued PHS for four decades. One incident like this is already too much, but several incidents over the years is a pattern that must be remedied now. We demand that racial literacy be mandated in order to improve this troubling climate. We request that the BOE honor its commitment to improving the racial climate in PPS by committing to hiring an outside consultant to advise the district on implementing a district-wide, high-quality, comprehensive curriculum (elementary to high school) to educate PPS students on the history of African Americans and racism in America. In addition, the Board of Education must hold the school and its leaders accountable to ensure that the climate is one where all students can thrive.
Rhinold Lamar Ponder
Jennifer Lea Cohan
Michael S. Hall
Basil Avery Ince
Reginald Wright Jr.
Shuk Ying Chan
Z Yan Wang
Daniela Barba Sánchez
Dorothea von Moltke
Heather L. Escalona
Diana W. Cano
Tracy K. Smith
Monica Ponce de Leon
Jenny E. Greene
Elizabeth M. Armstrong
Betsy Levy Paluck
Teri W. Boyd
Dana Jezierny Smith