By ERIN ROLL
When Amelia Carrington, a sixth grader at Glenfield Middle School, addressed the Montclair Board of Education, she told a story that troubled her.
At a recent online trivia night for Glenfield Middle School families, she said, an unmuted student yelled out “ching chong chang.” No one said anything in response, Amelia said. No apology was made about the incident either, she said.
But Amelia said she wasn’t surprised no one said anything.
“Seeing my school be completely silent was extremely disappointing,” she said.
The incident had been among those that prompted hundreds of people to sign an open letter to Montclair school officials this month, urging concrete steps to combat anti-Asian bias as students return to school buildings for the first time in the coronavirus pandemic. The letter’s writers say they’re troubled by anti-Asian sentiment rising nationally over the last year, and remind school administrators Montclair isn’t immune to hate.
And it’s a concern schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has now pledged to address, speaking both at the April 7 board meeting and in a smaller discussion with a group of parents who authored the letter and who administer a newly formed AAPI Montclair Facebook group (for Asian American and Pacific Islander residents).
“Please forgive us, and we will move forward aggressively to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Ponds said to Carrington at the board meeting. He said he’d immediately contact administrators at Glenfield to discuss what had happened.
The letter’s authors, who earlier this month told Montclair Local they worried there wasn’t enough urgency or specificity in district efforts to combat anti-Asian hate, now say they feel heard — and are encouraged by the dialogue with school leadership.
Ponds distributed a statement of solidarity with Asian, Pacific Islander and Asian American community members on April 9, a day after meeting with the parents.
“Acts of hate and harassment aimed at people of Asian heritage have been on the rise throughout the country,” Ponds said. “Recently, these racist acts have become more frequent and violent. We condemn all acts of hate and racism and xenophobia; prejudice and violence are never acceptable and have no place in our schools and our community.”
The parents who wrote the letter said they were “heartened by the deep thought Dr. Ponds has already given to making schools safer for our children, and by his invitation not only to meet, but to work in partnership with him.” They said Ponds had promised to address racism against Asian students in meetings with school administrators before elementary schools were to begin a hybrid learning schedule on April 12.
Ponds, in his own statement, said he’d planned culturally responsive training for all administrators and counselors. He said the training “is one of the first actionable steps we are taking to emphasize our values and beliefs.”
“It is critical that we have meaningful and intentional conversations around cultural differences as with this dialogue comes the celebration of our diversity,” the superintendent said.
He also said the district would review its curriculum “with an eye towards cultural responsiveness so that all of our students see themselves appropriately represented in history books, in literature, and even in subjects such as math and science.” That work would be part of the mandate of a newly formed District Equity Team. And Ponds promised support for hiring a diverse workforce that reflects the student population — a broader priority groups such as Montclair’s Teachers Undoing Racism Now have stressed as well.
The group of parents and AAPI Montclair administrators said Ponds also asked them to meet with professional development trainers, to ensure issues affecting AAPI students are fully and accurately covered.
Ponds, in his statement, said he looked forward to a “robust and festive Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration in May” as well.
He said by virtue of the district’s existing anti-racism and anti-bullying policies, the district does not “tolerate racism or harassment of any kind in any situation whether on school grounds, outside the walls of our buildings or in social media. These policies hold everyone accountable, and all allegations are investigated fully.”
‘You are special. You matter’
At the board meeting, siblings Oscar and Annie Jamail, who attend Hillside and Nishuane schools, respectively, also described incidents that happened to them the year before, in third grade and kindergarten.
Annie described bringing rice balls and nori to school for lunch, and getting picked on about it. Oscar said that just before the pandemic started, some children on the playground asked him if he had the coronavirus. The siblings’ mother is Amber Reed, one of the AAPI Montclair administrators.
“You are special. You matter. And I want to apologize that happened to you,” Ponds told them.
Serena Lee, a sophomore at Montclair High School, told the board and the audience she and other classmates of Asian descent had been subjected to a wide range of biases and microaggressions from elementary school onward.
After a man opened fire March 16 at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, killing eight people — six of whom were Asian — Lee and her classmates put together a directory of Asian-owned businesses in the Montclair area and encouraged community members to shop or eat at those businesses.
“An act of injustice on any is an act of injustice on all,” Ponds said. It is crucial that the entire community stands up against acts of hate, he said. “The pie is not going to get smaller if we all get involved.”
Parent Julie Kim, who’d helped the letter writers with outreach, thanked Ponds for his response. She described the last year as one of anxiety, fear and trauma, and noted a recent rise in hate crimes in New York.
“It’s been horrifying to watch. And we are not immune to it,” she said.
Board members shared their own concerns and dismay.
“Tonight has been a real revelation for me,” board member Alfred Davis said. The stories from the public brought home how much of a problem bias is in the community, he said.
BOE President Latifah Jannah said it is up to the superintendent’s office to ensure that building principals make sure all staffers are in compliance with anti-bias policies, and that there should be a follow-through whenever an incident is reported.
It should not have to get to the point where a parent has to come to a board meeting and report that nothing was done about an incident, Jannah said. If that happens, it means that a policy was not followed, she said.
Reed thanked Ponds and the board for their remarks.
“As Dr. Ponds and some other [Board of Education] members noted in their responses to public comment, anti-racism is not a pie with only so many pieces. We believe that what we are asking for — that the district’s commitment to anti-racism be supported with a plan of action — would benefit all students,” she said.
Editor’s note: Amber Reed is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board. The open letter discussed in this story is also included in a paid advertisement in the April 8 print edition of Montclair Local. Under Montclair Local’s editorial independence policy, we maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.