Photo courtesy of jamaicaponder.com 

Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission has decided not to investigate a 2017 complaint that alleges a pattern of racial discrimination in Princeton’s public school system.

The complaint, filed by former Princeton High School student Jamaica Ponder and her father, Rhinold Ponder, stemmed from a 2017 incident in which Ponder was suspended for submitting a picture to the yearbook in which two pieces of artwork, one containing the word n****r and the other depicting lynchings, were visible in the background. The issue received national media attention.

An email sent by Commission Chairman Tommy Parker to Rhinold Ponder and Princeton Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane on Feb.1 stated that the extensive media coverage surrounding the complaint had “undermined” the commission’s ability to facilitate dialogue and resolve conflict, according to an article on centraljersey.com.

He also worried that this media coverage could have a “chilling effect” on future complaints due to concerns about publicity. 

“Given that the confidentiality of the mediation process was compromised, I believe the commission made a fair and appropriate decision,” Cochrane said Saturday in a statement provided to centraljersey.com.

Ponder’s yearbook picture featured a group of friends posing with various objects, such as balloons and a basketball. The picture was captioned “Life of the Party.”  

“It was supposed to be a photo you created encapsulating your high-school experience,” said Ponder, adding that she “doesn’t think the school will continue with the photos” in the upcoming year.

In the photo, a piece of artwork with the words “N****r Rich” is visible on the wall behind the group. The piece was created by Rhinold Ponder for an exhibit titled “The Rise and Fall of the N-Word.”

“It’s been there so long no one paid attention to it,” Jamaica Ponder said, noting that two of the letters in the image are obstructed.

“The only way for you to know what it said was for me to tell you,” she added.

Although Ponder’s submission was originally approved by the yearbook staff, Ponder was called into the principal’s office two weeks before graduation and issued a one-day suspension, as was another student who had submitted an altered picture of the Nuremberg trials.

“It has been brought to our attention that there are senior collages that included insensitive, racist, jarring, provocative content that should not have been printed,” the school’s staff said in a statement published on Facebook. “Perpetuating racism or injustice of any kind is never okay.”

“We want our school’s yearbook to reflect our necessary community efforts toward social justice for all marginalized groups, including race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and religion,” the statement added, noting that the school would make efforts to improve the “copy editing” process for the yearbook.

However, Ponder alleged in her complaint to the Civil Rights Commission that there were problems in the way the school handled her case. According to Ponder, no written rules in the school’s code of conduct align with her infraction although state regulations mandate that the rationale for a suspension be provided for in writing.

“The school was also supposed to notify my parents and provide written explanation, which never happened,” Ponder said.

Protocol published by the State of New Jersey Department of Education requires “oral or written notification to the student’s parents of the student’s removal from his or her educational program prior to the end of the school day on which the school administrator decides to suspend the student.”

“I was told that intent was irrelevant. It didn’t matter that it was an oversight,” wrote Ponder on her website, Multi Mag. “No, we [the school administration] don’t care if you’re black — I mean we do, but not in this case.”

The issue came in the wake of other concerns about racial discrimination in the school system, which Ponder had publicized through her blog.

In 2016, Ponder posted pictures of Princeton High School students competing in a drinking game called “Jews vs. Nazis.”  In March 2017, she obtained a Snapchat post of a white student using a racial slur in reference to the black students she was with on a school bus.

Ponder also released a screenshot of text messages in which a white student apologizes to a black student for falsely informing his mother that the black student had sold him marijuana-laced brownies. The white student stated another friend had encouraged him to do so.

“He [my friend] said they [my parents] wouldn't ask any questions Bc ur black,” the original student wrote.

According to Ponder, the students involved in these incidents were not punished by the administration.

Now a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Ponder weighed in on anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen’s use of the N-word in the now-cancelled course ANT 212: Cultural Freedoms — Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.

“He decided that despite not being an African-American, his lecture was important enough to justify his use of the word, and he had the audacity to argue with students who tried to correct him,” Ponder said.

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