MEA panel talk
PHOTO COURTESY MONTCLAIR EDUCATION ASSOCIATION Petal Robertson, chair of the Montclair Education Association, addresses the audience of a June 3 discussion on the death of George Floyd, and how it is connected to issues facing the Montclair schools.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

At the start of the meeting, Montclair Education Association Chairwoman Petal Robertson told the audience that the discussion was not going to be a comfortable one, but that the key to bringing about change was dialogue.

“A movement, not a moment”: That was what the organizers of a June 3 panel on racism, equity, and the Montclair schools hoped attendees would remember in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and that the response from the public has to be a long-term, sustained effort.

Nearly 300 people turned out for the Zoom discussion, which also took on how factors that led to Floyd’s killing are connected to problems Montclair faces.

The MEA organized the talk, one of several events taking place this week, to give students, teachers, parents, community leaders, and administrators a chance to discuss what the Montclair schools should be doing about equity and the achievement gap.

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Over the course of two hours, the discussion covered a range of topics: microaggressions that students might experience in the classroom; the nature of schools and police forces as institutions, and whether they were designed to be equitable; academic tracking and classroom assignments; and the role that Montclair as a town should be taking on.

MHS Assistant Principal Reginald Clark said Floyd’s death and the events that have followed are affecting him in his various roles, as a black man, educator, and school principal; as a husband, father of two daughters, and pastor at his church. His 11-year-old daughter saw videos related to Floyd’s death circulating on TikTok, and she had questions about them.

“My head’s all over the place, but it’s really confusing to be in 2020 and reading headlines from the 1930s and 1940s,” Clark said.

MHS special education teacher Mirta Alsina said the videos of Floyd’s death made her heart heavy: “It’s very emotional to see someone lose their life in front of you.”

Montclair Police Lt. Tyrone Williams Jr. said he was both saddened and angered by the events in Minneapolis. “I’ve been a black man longer than I’ve been a cop,” Williams said. “But I am black and blue. I can’t take either of them off.”

Just before the start of the meeting, authorities in Minneapolis decided to elevate the charges against the officer already in custody, and to bring charges against the other three officers who were at the scene. That was a result, the panelists agreed, of the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death.

One question that was asked was whether the ongoing protests were justified.

“Protest is actually what got us here today,” said Shayla George, vice president of the Montclair NAACP Youth Council. George said that people tend to focus on the protests themselves, while ignoring the factors that led to the protests.

She said she noticed that during classroom discussions, teachers frequently use terms such as “be mindful of your allies,” which comes across as “tone policing,” an attempt to protect white students’ feelings. It makes black students who have been traumatized by racial incidents feel like their feelings come second, she said.

The panelists also brought up anecdotes about how black students and other students of color were grouped into certain classes because the teacher “can handle them.”

Part of the challenge in Montclair is that many residents love to describe how the town is progressive, liberal, and diverse, but then don’t do the work to reflect those values, said Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence.

For the first half of 2020, MFEE has been conducting watch parties for the documentary “America to Me,” a depiction of racial relations and tensions in Oak Park, Ill., a town and school district that are very similar to Montclair.

A watch party was scheduled for Sunday, June 7.

“This was not supposed to be, how can we eradicate racism in two hours,” Robertson said in summing up the discussion. She urged every attendee to continue having discussions after that afternoon, and not to become complacent.