Students, Parents Urge Amity Board to Embrace Diversity
A group of current and former Amity students and parents addressed the Amity Board of Education at its June 14 meeting to impress upon board members, the administration and the public at large how many students struggle with a lack of acceptance and acts of bullying at the school, and they generally described their Amity experience as being unwelcoming, to say the least.
“Amity is a place of peace and harmony, but right now, Amity does not feel like that,” said one student when addressing the board during public comment.
A student from Orange talked about the name calling he endured throughout his school years, including racial and sexual slurs. “I feel unwanted and unsafe,” he said, adding, “I want change for the better. I don’t want an apology and I don’t want pity. I want change.”
One parent spoke up for his daughter currently enrolled at the school. He said when she reported repeated racist comments to the administration, she felt they did not believe her, not until she provided proof in the form of a screenshot.
Kim Franklin of Woodbridge read a letter from her sister Tatiana, a 2005 Amity graduate, and currently a public defender in California, talking about her Amity experience. While in high school she experienced daily microaggressions and insults, she wrote. Although she was the captain of the track team and counted many friends among her classmates, she still felt lonely and isolated. When she had a falling-out with a friend, that friend used skin color to hurt her. “When she became mad at me, she used my blackness against me,” she wrote. “I was told I was ‘undatable’ because I was black. I grew up believing I wasn’t as smart as my classmates.” When she was accepted at the University of Michigan – a prestigious academic institution – she felt she had to immediately back up that information by listing all her achievements as if to justify the admission. “It left me in an identity crisis,” she wrote.
Parent Joseph Ross said his children’s school career started happily at Beecher Road School’s Multi-Age Program, where teachers and parents emphasize the value of diversity. But as they entered the Amity system, “each successive year resemble less this ideal school environment,” he said, saying they experienced racism, sexism, antisemitism and the frequent use of the N word, even in the presence of teachers. He said that bullying happens not only against black students, but female students as well.
Erin Williamson, a Beecher School parent and member of the Beecher Diversity Committee, said what the Amity board heard that night was just the tip of the iceberg. “For every student that talked tonight there are 20 who didn’t,” she said.
The reason was not for a lack of interest. About 40 people attended the meeting, which took place at the Orange campus, but the group received a note from the superintendent ahead of the meeting that they would have 20 minutes of public comment, with each speaker allotted 3 minutes. In the end, about 11 went to the podium to speak. The others were seated in an overflow room.
“You heard today that these issues happen on a daily basis,” Williamson said to the board. “This is a pervasive problem, a systemic problem.
“[Reading] a book is great. Having a plaque is great,” she said, referring to initiatives the district has taken recently to increase awareness of equity, diversity and inclusion at the school. “But that’s not what we need. What we need is professional development for our superintendent, for our principal, our teachers. What we need is a board that clearly states what their expectations are for our superintendent and our teachers. We need accountability.”
As a Beecher parent, she said she has experienced what can happen when a board communicates clearly to the superintendent that this is an area of interest. For the new Woodbridge superintendent, who joined the district last December, this issue will be a strategic priority, she said.
Several TV news organizations were present, Channel 12, Eyewitness News, Fox 61, and the local NBC affiliate, and reported on the concerns expressed by the students. With the television cameras trimmed on her, Amity School Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars welcomed their suggestions and expressed openness to change. “I see tonight as pivotal, she said, as it gave her the chance to hear students’ concerns. “Outside of this meeting, no one has yet reached out to my office to speak to me, but I am ready to keep listening, as are all administrators,” she said. “I want to work with parents, students and faculty to address the reality that students do feel unwelcome at Amity,” she said.
She mentioned a number of measures the district has implemented in the last few months, including adopting a policy for minority recruitment. She said the administration participated in a book study this year and engaged in Courageous Conversations, a protocol devised specifically to support interracial dialogue and thereby affecting change. One outcome of those conversations was the choice of the social justice theme for the One-Book-One Amity read this summer. Explaining and defending the choice of that theme became in itself a Courageous Conversation, she said.
Sage Paglia, who represents the Black Student Union, had very concrete suggestions for the administration to improve the situation. “I’d like to see more collaboration with students of color,” he said. “I’d like to see teachers sticking up for students of colors.” Sage also challenged the board to spur changes in curriculum and programming. “You need to…teach history other than from a white perspective.”
The group of students and parents present that night grew out of protest earlier this year over the decision to use a Kanye West video calling for the abolition of Black History Month to celebrate just that month. It seems that the video was shown during Spartan Seminar, but then not discussed any further, for lack of time. The story was picked up by Channel 12 and later by NPR and shone an unflattering light on an otherwise highly regarded school district.
Emily Melnick, one of the organizers, said the group has been meeting weekly since March and has heard from about 60 adults. In addition, the students have organized their own group, which has about 30 members. So far, most of the members are Woodbridge residents, but folks from Orange and Bethany have expressed an interest in starting their own groups in their town.
This is not the first time Amity students protested incidents of discrimination and intolerance. In the fall of 2018, a group of students and parents addressed the Board of Education about rampant antisemitism, a swastika drawn on bathroom walls, even vandalism on private property.
Judy Alpern, CEO of the Jewish Federation, was one of the speakers last week, reminding the board that there is a history of students who feel bullied and unsafe. “We had such great hope that change would come,” she said. She urged the school administration to take steps that are lasting. “Take back the future of this community, so people of all backgrounds, all ethnicities can feel safe and see a bright future – so that kids never have to confront this again,” she urged the district.
The group of parents had prepared a two-page memo for board members, which outlined not only where they were coming from, but also concrete actions they are hoping to see. These included, for the start of next school year:
- To designate a safe space for students to go when they need to, with designated/trained/trusted faculty and staff to support students on call / as needed;
- A new trusted Black Student Union advisor;
- Work with community leaders to procure or prepare additional professional development programing for faculty/staff regarding racial/cultural sensitivity and competence;
- To review all disciplinary policies and procedures and faculty/staff training to ensure a safer environment for students of color where racial epithets and harassment are not brushed off.
Further, they would like the district to continue this work during the next school year by:
- Hiring a consultant to work with the whole school to improve the school climate and culture and identify key areas for systemic change;
- Forming an Amity Diversity Committee;
- Planning a robust, positive Black History Month program for all students in consultation with the Black Student Union and Amity Diversity Committee.
And finally, more long-term, to develop and implement a robust plan for recruitment and hiring of teachers of color that includes tracking data of applicants, interviewees, offers, hires and retention; and to hire a new administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Dr. Byars did not disagree with the suggestions for change that were presented. “We are fully committed to taking the steps to create the positive, tolerant, and supportive environment that is sought,” she said.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent