Opinion: LTPS must take staunch stance against anti-Blackness

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On July 8, the Open Letter Against Systematic Racism, which was signed by over 1,000 stakeholders, was presented to the Lawrence Township Public Schools(LTPS) Board of Education.

Over the last 13 weeks, a coalition of community activists have met with Superintendent Ross Kasun almost every Monday to discuss the district’s response to Black in Lawrence NJ’s open letter. Subdividing the specific points laid out in the open letter into 10 main areas, to date discussions with Kasun and board representatives have centered on two, namely how the district responds to misbehavior and LTPS’s hiring practices.

The Black In Lawrence NJ Coalition has and will continue to engage in conversations with the district about its hiring practices and racial demographics of staff. While we are preparing our recommendations in response to these conversations, we would like to take this time to remind our community of the underrepresentation of Black staff on all levels in our district.

Of 26 administrators, one is Black and one is Asian, the rest are White. The district only has 14 Black teachers while employing 357 White teachers. And of all personnel within the district, only 49 identify as Black while 469 identify as White.

It is clear to the district and our coalition that we must do much better for our community in this respect if we are to uphold the thought that we embrace diversity in our district and township.

Moreover, it is imperative to establish a School Climate and Culture Leadership Team that directly responds to misbehavior by Jan. 1, 2021. From our discussions with LTPS administrators and board representatives, we have been given to understand that the district believes the Restorative Practice and Restorative Justice models they have already implemented are a sufficient response to #BlackInLawrenceNJ’s concerns of anti-Blackness within the way faculty and staff respond to misbehavior. At the same time, we have learned that only a portion of the district’s staff have been trained in Restorative Practice/Restorative Justice and the implementation of such pedagogies/methodologies lags due to faculty being on personal journeys of deconstructing their anti-Blackness and implicit bias.

To keep the wheels of justice turning, we have recommended that the district hire staff identified as experts in the areas of Restorative Practice/Restorative Justice, that teachers’ annual reviews should be modified to include a section focused on evaluating their application of these practices, and that detentions and suspensions in their current forms should be eradicated in favor of more restorative practices. Regarding detentions, we are now aware that Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately faced with such punishments. At the same time, it has become clear to us that the district does not have an adequate system to track reasons for detentions or suspensions, whether in or out of school.

There also is no current way to track when restorative justice was utilized rather than retributive justice. In the absence of any system for tracking punishments, Black students are left vulnerable to being disciplined more often and more harshly without any data to prove that is not the case.

In closing, Black in Lawrence NJ will remain here to ensure that our district pursues communal justice. We understand that Lawrence is a district of character and broad educational social justice. However, these accolades carry no relevance if the district does not take a staunch stance against anti-Blackness. For those who were not previously aware of incidents of anti-Blackness in Lawrence, events and conversations in our community since October 2019 have blatantly revealed the importance of us all, unequivocally, taking a stance to make Lawrence a truly anti-racist community.

We would like to thank Dr. Kasun, Michelle Bowes and Joyce Scott for their continued commitment to the movement for Black lives in LTPS. We look forward to continuing this work with you all. We would like the board and community to know that our recommendations can be found on the Open Letter Page and all BlackInLawrence sites.

The Members of the Black in Lawrence NJ Coalition

Lawrence Township