April 11, 2018

Princeton Schools Explore Reform Efforts for Discipline, Conflict Prevention, Equity

By Donald Gilpin

Inequity in school punishment and persistently high rates of suspension and expulsion for students of color and students with special needs have been a problem at many schools across the country and a controversial issue locally, including a complaint filed with the Princeton Civil Rights Commission just last January.

Rutgers University Psychology Professor Anne Gregory, a national expert on the subject of restorative justice, equity in school discipline, and community-building will speak to a gathering Thursday, April 12 at 7 p.m. in the John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) auditorium.

In a presentation co-sponsored by Princeton Public Schools, Princeton Special Ed PTO, Princeton High School PTO, JWMS PTO, Committed & Faithful Princetonians, Not in Our Town Princeton, Princeton Civil Rights Commission, Princeton Youth Advisory Committee, and Minority Student Achievement network, Gregory will discuss reform efforts in school discipline and programming to prevent conflict and intervene constructively once conflict has occurred.

Gregory has focused her research on disparities in school discipline and the persistence of African American adolescents being suspended and expelled from other groups at higher rates than adolescents. Seeking to highlight best practices in eliminating disparities, she advocates a restorative approach to discipline where schools engage in problem solving with youth around conflict, making classroom instruction more motivating and engaging, and integrating student voice in the discipline process.

Her work has also focused on teacher professional development, program development, implementation, and evaluation. She has been widely published in book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles, and her research has been supported by federal agencies and private foundations. She served on the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Resiliency and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents and consults with the U.S. Department of Justice on school discipline.

Last January, 2017 Princeton High School graduate Jamaica Ponder and her father Rhinold Ponder filed a complaint with the municipal civil rights commission claiming that Princeton Public Schools disproportionately suspend students of color, or with special needs. As reported by Planet Princeton, the complaint alleged that Jamaica Ponder was suspended and disciplined because of her race, gender, and advocacy for racial justice and equity. It also states that Ponder and her family were denied due process rights under school policy and state law throughout the suspension and appeal process.

Ponder was suspended last June after she submitted a yearbook group photo including artwork in the background from her father’s art exhibit, “The Rise and Fall of The N-Word.” The picture was judged to have offensive language and images in its background. While 16 students were involved in creating the photo, only Jamaica, the only black person, was disciplined, according to the complaint.