Board of Education Vice President Franklin Turner, center, speaks during the Wednesday, Jan. 10, BOE meeting. Also pictured are Board President Laura Hertzog, left, and board member Jessica de Koninck. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Students of color and special education students, especially boys, are disproportionately more likely to be suspended or reported for discipline issues in Montclair’s schools.

Those were some of the findings in Montclair’s violence/vandalism and suspension reports, both of which were presented during the Wednesday, Jan. 10, board of education meeting.

Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak and Dr. Felice Harrison-Crawford presented the suspension report, and Harrison-Crawford presented the violence and vandalism report.

On the violence and vandalism report, the data on offender demographics said that 24 general education students and 47 special education students had been involved in incidents in the 2016-2017 school year.

The data also found that at Montclair High School, of the 26 students reported to be involved in violence, vandalism and bullying incidents, 11 of them were male students of color in special education classes. On the middle school level, there were 36 students in total reported, and 19 of them were male students of color in special education classes.

Between September and December, Montclair saw a significant drop in the number of suspensions, compared to the same time period in 2016.

“And I hope, and have a lot of confidence, that this trend will continue,” Pinsak said.

However, Pinsak said that black or African-American students and special education students represented the highest numbers of students suspended.

“The numbers are very glaring as they relate to race,” said board member Jevon Caldwell-Gross. “It’s not always comfortable to talk about race and racism…I do think it’s something that has to be added to the conversation.”

“This is, frankly, very disheartening,” said board member Joe Kavesh. “I know numbers don’t tell the whole story, but it’s hard not to look at these numbers and come to any sort of conclusion other than the disproportionate effect on African-American males, especially African-American males at the 9-12 level.”

He said, “We are watching, because these numbers are tough to digest and it’s a punch to the gut.”

“We’re not ready. We’re nowhere near ready to get to the heart of the problem, which is overt racism,” said Vice President Franklin Turner.

Turner recalled his days as a high school teacher in Philadelphia. “And I consistently saw teachers treat black boys differently,” he said. “They didn’t understand those black boys. Plain and simple,” he said.

He added, “I think that we’re really…one, this isn’t going to change unless we call it what it is. It’s racism, plain and simple.”

It was also critical to make sure that in addition to paying attention to the needs of black boys, that the needs of black girls were not neglected in the process, he said.

Board member Eve Robinson was especially alarmed at how during the first half of the 2017-2018 school year, 11 elementary school students, all boys, had been suspended. She said that the data showed that Montclair’s primary unit curriculum was not meeting students’ social and educational needs.

“We are way late when we are talking about programs in the high school,” she said. “And I have been sitting here, so frustrated because I know what works. And when I see this number of children suspended in elementary school, and 11 of them are boys, I have to ask, what’s going on with these boys?”

Board President Laura Hertzog said that the reports highlighted the need for the board and for district staff to have a more forthright discussion about what teachers could, or could not, do to meet students’ needs in the classroom.

“There isn’t really an honest exchange,” she said.

During the public comment period, June Raegner, one of the leaders of the Special Education Parents Advocacy Council, called the report “sobering.”

“We need to do more and better in the diversity of our hiring, and our retention,” Raegner said. “That can also make a difference.”

Nina Nsilo-Swai said that the district had only a small number of behavioral specialists, and that Charles H. Bullock School had just lost its assistant principal position.

One parent verbally lashed out at the board before leaving the meeting before its conclusion.

Near the end of the meeting, Hertzog responded to a statement from parent and audience member Kellia Sweatt that the board hadn’t properly recognized the contributions of parents of color in raising awareness about Montclair’s need for equity in the classroom.

“And I think that’s a fair point. And I want to apologize,” Hertzog said.

She said that the group had worked especially hard on campaigning for equity best practices.

“And I have been remiss in not acknowledging it,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kellia Sweatt’s name.