Racial incidents at Princeton Public Schools prompt concern from parents, responses from school districtand Sarah Warman Hirschfield | May 15, 2017
Over the course of two years, three serious incidents of racism have occurred in Princeton Public Schools. The school district has responded to each incident, but the responses have been criticized as insufficient by members of the community. One parent believes the administration's actions were “harming black kids and their psyches.”
“It’s obvious that there’s institutionalized racism,” said Jennifer Cohan, whose daughter attends Community Park Elementary School, one of the four public elementary schools in the district. “When these things have been coming up at the high school, the mishandling of them really reflects how the district is operating. Three incidents in under a year, and each handled differently, all handled poorly.”
Princeton Public Schools, which comprises a preschool, four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school, had a black student enrollment of 6.5 percent for the 2013-2014 school year, down from 7.9 percent in the 2008-2009 school year. The total enrollment of black and hispanic students also decreased, from 17.9 percent in 2008-2009 to 16.7 percent in 2013-2014.
The most recent incident in the school district involved a middle school student falsely accusing his black classmate of distributing pot brownies. A screenshot of their discussion circulated through the John Witherspoon Middle School student body.
Jamaica Ponder, a senior at Princeton High School, broke the story on May 3 on her web publication, Multi Magazine. She also included a screenshot, with names redacted, of the Snapchat conversation between the two students.
Ponder wrote online that she finds herself waiting for the “next instance of aggressive, malicious assault on the black community in the Princeton Public School System,” and that she’s no longer surprised when it happens.
“It is clearly an intrinsic component of our culture,” Ponder wrote. “Once again, students in Princeton have proven that they are well seasoned in the art of being shamefully racist.”
Steve Cochrane ’81, the superintendent of PPS, responded to the incident the day after Ponder’s coverage in an email to students, parents, and staff. In his email, he explained that the student responsible for the false accusation received the “appropriate consequences.”
For reasons of privacy, Cochrane could not disclose these consequences, but he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that they involved a strong disciplinary response, with a response that was aimed at helping to educate the student.
“Racism exists in our schools just as it does in our society. As educators we would be naïve to think that we could instantly eradicate it,” Cochrane wrote in the email. “What we can do – and must do – is acknowledge racial injustice when we see it and teach our students to do the same.”
Ponder and others interviewed for this story worry about the culture of PPS and the administration’s role in preventing and handling these incidents.
“My school is racist. There’s no question about that,” Ponder said in an interview.
However, Ponder believes it important to continue to work to improve the community.
“Princeton, listen to me, we have a race problem,” she wrote.
Beer pong incident
Last April, Ponder posted a photo to her personal blog of Princeton High School students playing a version of beer pong where they acted as “Jews vs. Nazis.” The photo depicted students setting up cups in the shapes of a Star of David and a swastika at opposite ends of a table.
After seeing the photo on a friend’s Snapchat story, Ponder said she took a screenshot and waited a week to see if anyone was talking about it. When nobody did, she broke the story on her blog. In the attached blog post, Ponder wrote that she wanted to dispel the notion that people “can walk around doing dumb stuff like this and not get called out.”
“Evidently, as a society, we have gone wrong in some way, shape or form,” wrote Ponder in her blog post, “because the moment that the Holocaust became a running joke was the moment that ignorance outweighed intellect and that is the death of compassion for human life.”
However, as a consequence of speaking out and exposing the Nazi beer pong game, the “student body tried to annihilate me,” Ponder said in an interview. “They would write nasty things on my locker. I was berated on Facebook. I went very quickly from being their peer to being a public figure that they could voice their opinion about in any way they wished.”
“It created these cleavages in PHS that are still very evident in the social scene today,” she added.
The beer pong incident sparked a strong reaction from the PPS community, according to the parent of a daughter in Princeton Charter School who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“I got goosebumps,” Cecilie Weatherall, whose three children attend PPS, said. She added that the incident was “horrible,” but that the incident is in line with national trends.
While administrators have the authority to take disciplinary action in response to incidents that take place on school grounds, First Amendment rights generally limit their ability to punish students for actions that take place off of school property.
“We’re limited in how we can respond disciplinarily to those kinds of incidents,” Cochrane said in an interview, “but we did respond.”
Cochrane added that the only evidence the school had was the photo, which could not capture the extent of each student’s involvement in the game.
“Some of the students in the picture were leaving and telling the other students that what they were doing was wrong,” Cochrane said. “Others didn’t quite understand the ramifications and we needed to address it as educators.”
The school held conversations with everyone involved. Additionally, educators provided counseling and support.
“Here’s a group of kids who are engaging in behavior that clearly demonstrates that there’s need for education and discussion,” Cochrane said in the interview. “We brought in a Holocaust survivor to talk to the entire school and it was very powerful.”
Additionally, to address concerns of underage drinking, PHS worked with the Princeton Police Department to educate parents on the consequences of allowing parties to take place in their homes, according to Cochrane.
PHS Principal Gary Snyder did not respond to a request for comment.
Inappropriate reaction to speaker
Another racist incident occurred at Princeton High School in November of last year, when Alison Macrina was invited to speak at the school. Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project, an internet privacy anti-surveillance advocacy group, gave a talk on digital literacy that included a number of examples of online racism. She also included images of recent racist attacks, such as Nazi symbols being drawn on people’s doors. A number of students reacted to the pictures with laughter and jeering.
“It [was] unsettling for a bunch of teenagers to be laughing at racist imagery,” said Macrina.
Macrina observed that a number of students of color felt targeted by their fellow students’ mockery. She decided to promptly admonish the students responsible for the mockery.
“The principal was there, there were teachers there, and no one intervened at all,” Macrina said. “It’s like the students objecting didn’t exist. The students objecting were all students of color — every single one of them. Princeton really wants to believe that it has progressive politics, but it has this undercurrent of racism that nobody wants to address.”
After being asked about the Macrina talk, Cochrane gave a different account of the incident. He said that Macrina spoke at the school a few days after President Donald Trump’s election.
“It was a highly charged time in our community and in our country,” Cochrane explained. “Some of the comments that she made were fueled by the upset that many people were feeling about the election and you had many students in a highly charged state — some were upset, some were very happy with the election result.”
Cochrane lamented that members of the administration did not intervene when some students reacted to pictures of racist imagery with laughter and jeering, despite the fact that several were present for the talk.
“In hindsight, I wish we could have stepped in and stopped it a little more gracefully,” Cochrane. “We were trying to give the speaker and the students the latitude to have conversation and for some it was uncomfortable and we regret that.”
Cochrane also explained that they had entrusted the selection of the speaker to Brett Bonfield, the executive director of the Princeton Public Library.
“We trusted their vetting process,” Cochrane said.
The administration's later response, which came in an email sent out by Princeton High School Principal Gary Snyder, was an outrage to Macrina.
“The speaker at the assembly came to us highly recommended, but strayed from the original message and objective,” Snyder wrote. “[She] made statements that made some students feel uncomfortable, and a few students reacted in a way that also caused discomfort to their fellow students.”
“I was condemned as if I had misrepresented myself. This, however, is not true,” Macrina said. “Also, if you were an administrator, would you put an adult in a room in front of all of the children under your care without doing a little research on who that person is … you wouldn’t.”
Macrina said she thought the administration’s response was prompted by upset parents whose children she had criticized — “parents probably from the wealthy side of town,” she added.
“It was easier to blame the whole thing on me and pretend that the school doesn’t have a racism problem,” Macrina said.
Snapchat: Racist message posted online
In March, PHS made headlines again when a screenshot of a sophomore student’s Snapchat began circulating in the student body. Ponder posted the photo online.
“I’m on the bus with a bunch of [n****rs] help,” the caption read. Ponder posted the Snapchat, which was taken in October, right before students left for spring break, according to Fredrika Pfeiffer, a junior at PHS.
Cochrane issued a statement the day the image was made public.
“The student’s statement was unacceptable,” he wrote in the statement. “Racism is not something we are born with. But if it can be learned, it can be unlearned.”
After the photo was made public, “a lot of kids were realizing, ‘That could’ve been me,’” said Pfeiffer, adding that a lot of people use the word, but don’t understand what using it really means.
“It really opened people’s eyes to the fact that you really can’t throw it around,” Pfeiffer said.
In school, many teachers “put aside their scheduled lessons” and “committed themselves to an honest and authentic discussion with their students” about the incident, Cochrane wrote in a report to the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education. The report also outlined plans for professional development to increase staff’s cultural responsiveness and implicit bias training, curriculum revisions to include race-related topics, and race literacy training for students. This involves bringing in speakers and experts on racial bias and hosting discussions about best practices to approach racial sensitivity in the classroom setting.
Yet Pfeiffer still has concerns about how the school address instances of racism.
“They never really say that the students made a mistake,” Pfeiffer explained. “It’s always this idea that one student didn’t feel the unity among classmates and that’s the issue, instead of it being many students having serious problem with their understanding of racism in general.”
Cochrane declined to comment in regards to disciplinary action taken against the sophomore. He would only say that the “incident was investigated and responded to with the utmost seriousness by our administrators.”
Elementary school concerns
Parents of Princeton public elementary school students also have shared concerns with the upper schools of institutionalized racism. This year, Community Park Elementary School, one of the four in the district, attracted attention after administrators removed a weekly science lab from its Dual Language Immersion program, in which students can receive half their core instruction time in Spanish and half in English.
The program boasts “enhanced cognitive abilities. This is a huge selling point for many parents,” said Cohan, whose daughter is enrolled in it.
A month into the program, Cohan learned that children in DLI were not receiving Science Lab instruction, a weekly one-hour class that is taught in a laboratory environment by someone with either an undergraduate degree in science or experience teaching science.
According to Cohan, the school had a teacher who fit that profile: the teacher was tenured, loved by students, and inspiring for the students.
However, because that teacher did not speak Spanish and the school was unable to find someone who did, Science Lab was removed from the curriculum for DLI students, according to Cohan.
A teacher who had been qualified to teach the course “went on leave last April and didn’t come back,” according to PPS world languages and ESL supervisor Priscilla Russel. “We’ve been on the lookout for a Spanish-speaking science specialist. We have a committee. But we haven’t found anyone yet. We have to have someone who is a certified teacher.”
Two job fairs were held in the district specifically targeting Spanish-speaking teachers, Russel noted. This year, a Spanish-speaking teacher, who is not certified, is teaching the class.
“This year, we have a Science Lab teacher who teaches on the English side and [one] who teaches on the Spanish side,” she said, noting that it has been hard work for the instructor on the Spanish side, who does not have an undergraduate degree in a science-related subject.
“They changed the title of a bilingual classroom aide to ‘science teacher,’” said Cohan. “She’s a fabulous woman, but that’s not her background, so that’s really an insult to other science teachers. Where is the respect for professional experience?”
Cohan also voiced doubts about the need for Science Lab to be taught in Spanish within the DLI program, given that English is the international language of science.
Cohan said she was mortified because she is aware of the opportunity gap for women and people of color.
“These low-income children of color are not getting equal education,” said Cohan. “That’s why I speak out. That’s what motivates me. I’m angry also that my daughter, who is a girl and loves science, is getting the short end of the stick. But when I stand up, it’s not just for her.”
In October, Cohan additionally received a letter from the district law firm intimating that she was misrepresenting the school by running a Facebook page entitled “Community Park DLI Program.”
“[The letter] was intended to silence me,” she said. Cohan says the website is motivated by a desire for “transparency, accountability and equity in the Community Park Dual Language Immersion program.”
“I’m already scarred from this. Now watching it at the high school level, I’m not surprised. But it’s really disturbing,” Cohan said.
Response from the administration
In response to these accusations of racism, PPS will undergo a number of curriculum changes next year on top of a series of training sessions to promote racial literacy, an awareness of everyday forms of racism.
PPS will incorporate racial literacy training for students and faculty and curriculum revisions in the following school year in response to concerns about racial insensitivity in the student body.
“It’s about being able to talk honestly, authentically about race in our world and to navigate the issues that come up,” said Cochrane. “We’re learning together but I can say that Princeton Public Schools are beginning a really transformational journey to be leaders in the arena of racial literacy.”
For teachers, PPS will host training sessions on implicit bias, cultural responsiveness, and best practices for educational equity and diversity.
For students, the third grade curriculum will be reworked, “moving from strict focus on Colonial Times to one that includes contemporary issues such as school segregation in Princeton,” according to Cochrane’s annual report.
In the town’s own history, for example, a plan was introduced in 1948 to racially integrate schools. The plan was “the premise for a lot of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision,” according to Cochrane.
There will also be a new class on race and culture, an addition of a unit on race in the U.S. History course, and a reexamination of the summer reading list through a lens of cultural and genre diversity.
“I think there’s a really interesting story that goes beyond the sort of typical, you know, institution of higher education that’s sort of a bastion of white privilege not being sensitive to economic diversity or racial diversity,” said Cochrane. “I see something very different. I see a real shift and transformation in Princeton Public Schools.”
Last month, PHS hosted “See Me, Hear Me: Open, Honest Dialogue with Today’s Youth,” a conference for students of color who wanted to engage the community in discussions of how race, religion, gender identity, and economics affect their lives and their learning. Parents, students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and school board members attended the event. The event included a student panel that discussed bias and discrimination.
“The event was incredibly inspiring,” said Cochrane. “[The student panelists] had a message for their teachers, which was: ‘Your relationships with us matter. The small things you do have a huge impact.’"
Actions such as greeting students in the hallway, attending school events, or varying instructions based on interests, and learning preferences indicate that PPS cares about its students, Cochrane emphasized. The efficacy of these new initiatives and programs has yet to be determined, but PPS is hopeful incidents like these are in the past.
Sarah Hirschfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.