BY REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
A group calling itself 100 Moms and Students of Color held a Black Kids Matter protest rally in Rand Park on Saturday, Aug. 15, demanding “accountability, justice and equality for black and brown children in schools.”
Instead of making strides, some families in Montclair feel as if they are losing ground in the fight against discrimination in the schools.
The rally was planned to bring attention to the racism students of color still feel within Montclair schools, and to one student’s plight in particular whose family filed a tort claim in July alleging school officials did nothing to stop the bullying of their daughter at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.
In a speech to the crowd of about 250 people, Kellia Sweatt, president of the National Independent Black Parent Association, said she is angry because, she charged, interim Superintendent Nathan Parker dismantled many of the gains NIBPA had made in the district, most specifically eliminating the position of student equity advocate.
The student equity advocate provided guidance and advocacy for students who felt they were experiencing discrimination, had been victims of racist behavior or thought they were being mistreated or blocked from opportunities in the school district.
Joseph Graham Jr., who held the position, was recently let go due to budget cuts. The Board of Education contends that the advocate’s services would be provided by another staff member, but Sweatt is skeptical that those responsibilities could be adequately carried out by someone in another position.
As Sweatt shared stories of racial harassment endured by students of color in Montclair, a woman entered the rally and stood at the back of the crowd. After listening for a few minutes she began throwing her hands up in the air as if in disbelief and began questioning rally supporters.
Rising ninth grader Megan Hackett said she and 2009 Newark Academy graduate Andrew Binger were listening to the speech when the woman “came over angrily and said, ‘Are you guys buying this?’” Hackett recorded the incident on her phone.
“No one was ever called any of these names,” the woman says in reference to Sweatt’s accounts, “and I don’t think she is telling the truth, and I think she is exaggerating, and I think she is spreading hate.”
Hackett then told the woman, “I went through it.”
“She’s the reason we’re here,” said Arthur Townes, a friend of the Hackett family, pointing to Megan Hackett.
Hackett’s mother later gave a speech detailing her ongoing battle with the district to get justice for her daughter, who was allegedly targeted in online chats with racial insults and threats for nearly two school years at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.
Hackett, who is African American, was allegedly called “blackie,” “tar baby,” “burnt stick,” “shadow” and other slurs referencing her race and skin color. Students also told the girl, “You look like you jumped in a bucket of black paint,” according to a notice of tort claim filed against the district on July 1 by attorney Jeffrey R. Youngman, who is representing the victim.
“Since my story came out, other parents of Black, Latino and LGBTQ students came to me to share their stories. I realized I’m not alone,” Hackett said.
The rally originally planned to include a march to Buzz Aldrin Middle School, where the bullying took place, but organizers were told at the last minute that they would need a second permit to be on school grounds. So this portion of the rally was canceled.
According to the tort claim filed by Hackett’s mother, the claims of bullying were determined to be legitimate by both a private investigator hired by the school district and by an investigation carried out by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after the family filed a formal complaint. The outcome of the OCR investigation placed the district on a Corrective Action Plan, and it was instructed to address the findings, according to the tort claim.
Hackett’s video shows the woman arguing and more than a dozen people coming to Hackett’s defense, and then asking the woman to leave.
“I just want to have a conversation,” the woman is seen saying in the video recording. “Am I not allowed to speak for myself?”
“You can’t have a conversation with us when you start by saying you don’t believe us,” Binger told the woman.
The woman was then escorted out by a uniformed policeman.
“If others hadn’t stepped in I would have had a conversation with her. I wanted to know what she thought,” Hackett said.
But Binger sees the incident as another example of how victims are vilified for speaking out. “She clearly was not interested in a conversation, and instead wanted to attack a young Black woman for refusing to be silent after enduring years of racism and bullying,” he said.
Megan’s mother, Natalie, was not surprised. “The narrative that our complaints are overblown is one that’s being peddled even by elected officials. I’ve seen emails saying we’re ‘making a stink’ and ‘making the town look bad.’”
The rest of the rally went on without incident.
Speakers included David Toler, a member of the Civil Rights Commission of Montclair, Caryl Lucas, founder of the Unstoppable Girls Foundation, Lawrence Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress, Alexis Dickerson, a 2018 MHS graduate, Shayla George, a 2020 MHS graduate, Genesis Whitlock, an MHS senior, Algernon Hall, founder of Jubilee Children’s Entertainment, Danette Chavis of National Action Against Police Brutality, Joseph Graham Jr., the former student equity advocate, and Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlak, among others. There were performances by Rostafa and 2018 MHS graduate Adarian Sneed.
After a tearful speech by the Hacketts, protesters marched to the front of Montclair High School, where the rally concluded.