NJ Student Blackout Representatives Demand Changes To Address Racism at Montclair Board of Ed Meeting

Montclair High School senior Shayla George and Montclair Kimberley Academy students AJ Christian and Arnelle Larose addressed the Montclair Board of Education on Thursday, stating demands for changes to Montclair Schools.

The three students were among the organizers of the NJ Student Blackout Juneteenth march in Montclair, which attracted some 1000 participants, including students from Montclair High School, Montclair Kimberley Academy, Newark Academy, Seton Hall Prep, as well as high school students from West Orange, Livingston, and Maplewood-South Orange. The students marched from Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School to Rand Park, where the group held a liberation celebration.

Students marching on Juneteenth in Montclair. The Essex County-wide student organized Juneteenth march attracted over 1000 participants. Photo: Chanda Hall

Larose spoke about the importance of involving students from schools all over Essex County in the march and how much time and work went into executing the event.

“It takes more than one person to make a movement. There isn’t just one face to Juneteenth 2020, to NJ Blackout or to social justice movements in general. It requires all of us, it requires a team. We hope to reinforce those ideas and that this meeting will get us more supporters, to hopefully creating a more equitable and fair society,” Larose said.

Christian said that the end goal of the student’s Juneteenth march was to have their comprehensive demands met.

“There’s just a lot more to black history than the MLK and Malcolm X. There are empowering men and women who aided the way in fields such as politics, business music, and so much more. And we feel that we need to teach more than just the big names of Civil Rights Movement,” Christian added.

George, who graduated from Montclair High School Wednesday, spoke of the mental health toll racism takes on students both in the high school and at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, where she had previously attended when it was Mount Hebron. George also mentioned bullying incidents specific to Buzz Aldrin and how it was not conducive to the mental health of students. She said one of the group’s demands was to have twice a month school-wide discussions targeting both direct and indirect forms of racism and how to combat them.

“There needs to be professional development, specifically geared towards non-black and white teachers and administrators regarding racism in the classroom and the building,” George said. “People are just being hired with no care in regards to the harm that they can — and will do — to students and their parents. Children spend the majority of their lives in school. The people paid to watch and protect and look over them, need to be people who care about students every day, all day — not just when it’s brought to their attention,” George said.

George also cited the demand for in-school mental health programs geared for black students, that would provide them with an outlet to restore the damage done by racism.

“There’s no reason why we should be making space for institutions like the Montclair Police Department in schools, but not spaces for real, welcoming therapists and mental health programs,” she added.

The group also demands an established connection between black student groups and school administrators, specifically between the black students and someone in a role such as a headmaster or principal.

“These demands are not frivolous or wishful thinking,” George said. “There is a difference between a beneficial school environment and one that thrives off of institutional racism, which is what we have now at this moment.”

BOE President Latifah Jannah said she was proud and excited about what the students were doing and that they were sounding the alarm. She thanked them for holding the Board to task and urged them to keep doing so.

George asked the board for a timetable in terms of addressing the stated demands.

Jannah stated that both George and MHS student Genesis Whitlock who had presented at a previous BOE meeting, should try and attend July 17 BOE retreat which is open to the public. Interim Superintendent Dr. Nathan Parker, who praised the students’ efforts and strategic approach, recommended that George reach out to Dr. Jonathan Ponds, the new superintendent who will start on July 1.

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