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student equity advocate
Joseph Graham, former Student Equity Advocate.
KATE ALBRIGHT

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

At a rally in August by mothers in support of a middle school student who had been allegedly subjected to severe, racially motivated bullying, former Montclair student equity advocate Joseph Graham told the crowd that at Montclair High School he heard “horror stories of abuse, of being called out in the middle of class, being railroaded from taking advanced classes, and Black boys being shipped to special education.”

Graham was named as the district’s first and only student equity advocate in April 2018, under former Superintendent Kendra Johnson.

But this March he was relieved of his duties under interim Superintendent Nathan Parker. He came back to speak at the rally to support the children of color he advocated for when he worked for the district.

The student equity advocate position was one of the recommendations in the Achievement Gap Advisory Panel’s report, which was presented in 2015. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that the advocate position was approved. The intention was to have someone who could assist families and students, particularly students of color, in advocating for their educational needs. 

At the rally, Graham said he had been let go due to budget reasons, but also claimed that following his initial presentation that 150 students, of which 85 percent were Black, had sought out his help, he was met with attempts within the district to hinder his work.

The Montclair NAACP has asked for an inquiry on what has happened concerning the advocate position, and what will happen going forward. 

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said that he is aware of the concerns raised by some community members and students over the position’s not being filled, and that the matter is under investigation at this time. 

“I am currently reviewing the history of the equity positions to ensure accurate information is disseminated in the near future. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the statements regarding the equity officer as it is a personnel matter at this time,” Ponds said in response to a request for information from Montclair Local.

After a few months on the job, Graham reported at a Board of Education meeting in November 2018 that 150 students had sought his guidance. The number was evenly split between male and female, but about 85 percent were Black students, he said. 

Among the issues cited by the students were discrimination, being directed away from higher-level academic courses, and teachers not listening to concerns about bullying. 

At the  next BOE meeting, Montclair Education Association (MEA) officials raised concerns about Graham’s report, contending that members of the public would feel that teachers were ignoring student reports of harassment and bullying, or otherwise not taking them seriously. The MEA also voiced concerns that none of the incidents mentioned in Graham’s report had been officially verified, with MEA Chair Petal Robertson contending at the time that MEA members were not apprised of any of the information prior to Graham’s presentation. 

At the time of Graham’s departure this year district officials said his duties would be reallocated among other staff members. They declined to comment on how those duties were divided.  

The student equity advocate job description is still posted on the district website. The position requires that the candidate be: “Responsible for providing guidance and advocacy for students and/or parents/guardians to address individual or systematic systems that underserve Black students and other traditionally marginalized groups. Responsibilities include but are not limited to collecting lived experience data, researching and addressing issues of equity, linking students and their families to school and community resources, monitoring attendance and discipline, communicating with administration, counselors, students and families; presenting concerns to district officials in a hope to address questions, concerns and/or misinformation; making recommendations to district staff that might enhance communications with students and/or families.”

But at the Sept. 21 BOE meeting, Ponds announced that the district is working on an updated job description for the position. That description will be presented to the BOE for review at a later date, he said.

At a virtual town hall on Sept. 10, James Harris, chair of the NAACP’s education committee, called for answers to the question of what became of the advocate’s role. Other concerns at that meeting included what happened to the different equity positions in the district since Johnson’s departure as superintendent; the impact of budget cuts on equity initiatives in the district; and how the NAACP could work with other community organizations on addressing all issues related to educational equity.

Graham could not be reached for further comment.