July 29, 2020

“Racism in Princeton” Is First Forum for 2020 Joint Effort Event

By Donald Gilpin

Joint Effort Princeton Safe Streets will kick off its 2020 program of a community reception and three community-wide Zoom discussions on Wednesday, July 29 at 5 p.m. with a forum on “Racism in Princeton, PHS Student Video, John Witherspoon Middle School Name Change, and More.”

The annual week-long series of events celebrating Black culture in Princeton will continue next week with a virtual discussion on “The Future of Princeton and Community Development Hot Topics” on Wednesday evening, August 5 at 6:15 p.m.; a “Princeton Elected Officials Update and Candidates Forum” on Saturday morning, August 8 at 10 a.m.; and a Cynthia “Chip” Fisher and Romus Broadway Memorial Virtual Art Exhibit-Collage Slideshow and Community Reception featuring a community salute to Romus Broadway and the Jim Floyd Memorial Lecture and Gospel Music Hour, followed by an awards presentation ceremony, starting at 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 9.

As Black Lives Matter protests continue throughout the country and, locally, a Princeton High School (PHS) student video with racist content and a middle school named after a slaveholder cause ongoing consternation, the July 29 discussion could not be more timely. The panelists include former Princeton School Board member Fern Spruill, former Princeton Councilman Lance Liverman, Black Parent Affinity Group member Jason Carter, attorney Eric Broadway, Princeton Public Schools (PPS) teacher Joy Barnes Johnson, PPS School Board candidate Paul Johnson, Not In Our Town Coordinator Linda Oppenheim, PPS Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso, PPS Board of Education (BOE) President Beth Behrend, and Princeton Civil Rights Commissioner Thomas Parker.

The controversial student video, circulated on social media earlier this month, included former and current white PHS students at a party singing along with racist and homophobic lyrics, and not observing social distancing. The video was shared widely and, in addition to questions of racism and acceptable teen behavior, raises the question of the school district’s responsibility for behavior of students outside of school.

The PPS Black Parents Affinity Group has written a letter, signed by 19 members of the group and more than 100 supporters, calling on the BOE to “acknowledge the harm caused by this incident and the school district’s response, investigate and address the behavior of the high school principal Jessica Baxter, require the development of a mandatory racial literacy course in the high school, and immediately review the efficacy of the Peer Group program as it relates to students of color.” 

The letter criticized Baxter for “an act of intimidation” in calling parents of students of color and asking that their children remove social media postings about the incident criticizing the school district.  Several of the students in the video were peer group leaders. 

The letter further stated, “Sadly, this video and the principal’s inadequate response to it are part of a longer pattern with implications for the racial climate of the school and the mental health of students.”

Raddha Chaddah and Keith Wailoo, writing for the Black Parents Affinity Group, said that they had been in touch with the superintendent and the high school principal to arrange a meeting.  “Given the urgency of our concerns about our children’s well-being, the school’s climate, and the mishandling of this matter, we hope this meeting can happen soon,” they said.

PPS is developing an online racial literacy course that will be piloted starting in September for adoption in the 2021-22 school year.  A statement issued by PPS last week noted, “The pursuit of equity is central to the PPS mission. From his first day on the job on July 1, Interim Superintendent Dr. Barry Galasso has made it a priority to meet with and to understand the concerns of the stakeholders in the Princeton Public Schools.”

The statement noted that Galasso had met with leaders of Not In Our Town and the Civil Rights Commission “and, with both groups, has committed direct resources to support community efforts to understand the history of racism in Princeton and to work for reconciliation and healing.”

In addition to the Joint Effort forum, which Galasso and Behrend are scheduled to attend on July 29, Galasso and the PHS administrative team will meet with the Black Parents Affinity Group as soon as a date is confirmed, the statement said.  “The pandemic has made responding to diverse needs and addressing disparities more challenging, and more urgent,” the PPS statement concluded.

Joint Effort coordinator John Bailey, who will speak at the July 29 forum on “What It Means to be Black in America Today,” pointed out, “This is a teachable moment. And the questions to ask are: ‘Are these kids racist? Should they be punished?’  And a question for the adults in the room: ‘What does it say about Princeton if these cases keep coming up and we don’t resolve them?’”

Emphasizing the need to get everybody on the same page and focused on the most important issues, in the spirit of the Joint Effort event, Bailey added, “It’s a complex scenario, and it’s not as simple as ‘these kids are racist.’ It’s unfair to label them that way. There are no winners here, but there could be some losers. There’s a need for reasonable discussion. We don’t want politics, bad feelings, grudges or any of that Princeton nonsense getting in the way.”

Also on Wednesday evening, July 29, Joint Effort will recognize PPS educators Joy Barnes Johnson and Jason Carter, who are receiving the Virginia Euell-Bill Johnson Educational Leadership Awards and Fern and Larry Spruill, who will receive the Eric Craig Education in Community Service Award.

Confirmed participants in the August 5 Zoom forum, which will address such topics as affordable housing, the Witherspoon Street corridor, Franklin Terrace, police-community relations and civil rights, the Mary Moss Pool, and more, will include Chris Figoli Palmer, Bob Hillier, Josh Zinder, Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter, and Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros.

For the Saturday, August 8 discussion, local elected officials and candidates seeking the offices of U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, Mercer County freeholder and clerk, Princeton mayor and Council, and Princeton BOE have been invited to share their vision for Princeton and Mercer County. Hosted by Joint Effort and the Capital City Area Black Caucus, the August 8 Zoom event will include a special salute to Mercer County Freeholder Sam Frisby. 

For further information and the Zoom links, contact John Bailey at (720) 629-0964 or johnbailey062@gmail.com.