Woodbridge schools take stand on equity with creation of Equity Commission and a diversity and equity officer

PHOTO BY KATHY CHANG/STAFF

WOODBRIDGE – In efforts to do better when it comes to diversity and equity, the Woodbridge Township School District is taking a number of actions including creating an Equity Commission and creating a new position, a diversity and equity officer.

Board of Education Vice President Marie Anderson will chair the Equity Commission.

“We take all concerns seriously,” she said at a board meeting on July 16. “We listened humbly and as a board we are taking action. Is it possible to do better? Yes, much better.”

In June, a group of township high school and college students took a stand, calling for an end to anti-Blackness and the act of complicity when it comes to racism following the death of George Floyd at a peaceful protest and rally.

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.

The group of students had spoken about their experiences with racism growing up not only in the township, but in the classroom.

Anderson said the board’s Equity Commission will follow the framework of the New Jersey Department of Education’s approved comprehensive equity plan.

“We will identify, remove any barriers within our district and create a new position for the district, a diversity and equity officer for student services,” she said, adding the district will continuously review curriculum and policies. “To make a meaningful impact, we must seek input on existing issues and opportunities for improvement from our stakeholders. Therefore, we will offer multiple channels of communication to report acts of racism, bias or inequity.”

The multiple channels will include student voice focus groups, diversity councils in each school, and a website to submit feedback on a confidential basis.

Schools Superintendent Robert Zega said it is not OK for a bias incident to happen and for a student to have nowhere to go to seek resolution for the incident.

“That’s one of our highest priorities that we’re going to change … to give students an opportunity, an avenue to seek out help, counseling, when they have been offended,” he said.

Zega said at the end of June, the district’s administration underwent three days of training on equity and inequality with faculty at William Paterson University.

“We will also receive training district-wide for all staff from the [The Busch Law Group LLC] on the issue of equity and inequality,” he said. “There will be special training for affirmative action officers who are our anti-bullying coordinators and also for our different teams in our schools.”

Zega said they will continue to analyze equity metrics – student body race on the honor roll and in honor classes, student body race in advanced placement enrollment, race versus discipline, and race versus academic support instruction and special education.

“We will continuously monitor student groups as compared to racial groups in each school,” he said.

The district is working on a job description for the new diversity and equity officer, which will be up for review, discussion and approval at the next board meeting on Aug. 20. It is envisioned the person will work with the school community to employ the best practices in equity; ensure not only everyone is aware of the practices, but also compliant in practicing the best practices; hold parent academies; and provide insights and recommendations for district policies, and analyze metrics, Zega said.

“The accountability piece is a large part,” he said.

District officials have already begun to review district curriculum, which includes adding equity lessons to history and health and review required literature.

“We are looking to add an ethics studies course [in the middle and high schools] and possibly make it a graduation requirement,” he said. “The ethics studies course will look at the challenges that different ethnic groups had throughout history.”

Zega said as far as literature, they are reviewing any literature that has been offensive and made students uncomfortable.

“We are making sure any curriculum that is presented in our classes is not offensive,” he said.

District officials are also reviewing the harassment policy with the possibility of adding mandatory training for offenders with a parent component in an attempt to not only change behaviors, but also educate.

Zega said he commends the board for moving forward with an equity commission and the creation of the diversity and equity officer at a time of potential budget shortfalls and working on an in-person plan for September.

“Equality is important because if our students aren’t comfortable, they won’t learn,” he said. “It’s an issue that has been brought up time and time again and it’s important for us to address with actionable measures.”

For more information visit woodbridge.k12.nj.us.