April 5, 2017

Schools and Community Respond to Racial Slur

Following the appearance of a Snapchat photo accompanied by a racist slur posted by a high school student, Princeton Public Schools continues to investigate the incident and the larger questions of racism in the community.

PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane stated in a letter to parents, students, and staff last Wednesday: “We want to make clear that the student’s statement was unacceptable. We are investigating the incident, and we understand the anger, sadness, frustration, and even fear the use of the word has created in our community.” 

High school social studies teachers met with the superintendent last Wednesday and agreed to use their classes as a forum to discuss the topic. Social studies teacher Jeff Lucker reported, “I was impressed with how seriously my students handled the issue and how thoughtful they were.”

Mr. Lucker added that “one of several recurring themes was the issue of conflating racism and the use of social media and internet privacy. Some students were clearly of the view that when the conversation veered in the direction of social media it was a distraction from the issue of racism.”

The Snapchat photo, which came to light when it was shared through an online magazine site by another Princeton High School (PHS) student, showed a girl’s face and the caption, “I’m on the bus with a bunch of n———s, help.”

PHS senior Jamaica Ponder, who published the photo and caption with a blog in Multi Magazine titled “Back of the Bus,” wrote, “… this is wrong. It is hurtful and astonishing to see one of our peers so violently shaken by the presence of black people that she had to send out an SOS to her friends.”

The article by Ms. Ponder continued, “Not only the fact that she’s calling us n———s —that’s old news — and not that she felt comfortable posting it on social media — also old news — but the fact that she genuinely felt displeasure in the utter presence of black kids. That’s terrifying to me.

“I thought we were moving on. I thought this was all over, that the racists were dying out. I didn’t think about the back of the bus until this girl promptly reminded me that’s exactly where I belonged.”

Ms. Ponder last spring wrote on another online site about PHS students playing a “Jews vs. Nazis” beer pong game.

Strong responses to Ms. Ponder’s blog included “shocking, sickening, beyond troubling. Jamaica, you are doing the world a great justice by speaking out. Change doesn’t happen if we keep quiet and accept things as they are,” from one writer. Another noted that this incident was hardly an isolated one, “An exceptional article that speaks volumes to the internal conditions African American children face daily within the Princeton School System, which for many is challenging to believe and face.”

In his letter, Mr. Cochrane discussed the harsh “reality of racism within our world. We live in a world in which we are regularly exposed to explicit and implicit biases. The news is filled with incidents and commentary regarding cultural differences and tensions. The conversation and conflict are all around us.”

He went on to suggest ways to “help our students and our society move beyond racism” with “courage,” “humility,” and “hope,” stating that “students want and need to be a part of that conversation and to make sense of that conflict. I believe schools have a responsibility to give them a safe space to do that. More importantly, I believe schools have a responsibility to lead the conversations — and the actions — to propel our world to a place beyond racism.”

Mr. Cochrane cited his meeting with PHS social studies teachers last week, ongoing discussions in high school classes, and a staff development session last month in which many teachers explored racial and gender-based stereotypes “as part of our district’s stated goal of enhancing racial literacy and cultural awareness.” He also mentioned a recent Mercer County Day of Dialogue discussion among 17 area high schools, including PHS, where students and staff discussed the “‘unspeakables’ in their schools — the issues of racial discrimination that affect them in their daily lives and how they can be eradicated.”