A letter addressing George Floyd’s death from interim Superintendent Nathan Parker was questioned by some because it was sent to students as well as parents, but was defended by school district officials.

“There is something troubling going on in our society now that is enabling this kind of monstrous behavior. The escalation of violence in media, language, and behavior is growing more prevalent. No one of color appears to be safe these days. There has been systemic racism in the United States perpetuated over many generations.  As a result, a person of color, young or old, must walk the streets with extreme caution,” Parker wrote on May 29, four days after Floyd was killed when a police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck.

The letter sparked a debate on Facebook, with opinions ranging from concern that the letter frightened children to an affirmation that conversations need to happen. At least one person, who has a grandchild in the schools, said via social media that he did not think it was appropriate to send the letter, and that it frightened children.

Board of Education members discussed Floyd and racial issues at their June 3 meeting.

Board member Sergio Gonzalez said some children learn about racism through the lens of empathy for others, while others learn about it when they are directly targeted by it.

When Gonzalez was 8 years old, someone yelled a nasty word at his family while he was on a shopping trip with his mother and brother.

“I didn’t get a chance not to experience racism early on,” he said.

About the appropriateness of the letter, he said he understood the desire of parents to want to protect their children from learning about bad things in the world. “But if we don’t talk about the pain that many go through, we’re doing society a disservice,” he added.

BOE President Latifah Jannah said all five of her sons, now grown, have been stopped, questioned, arrested, or detained by the Montclair Police Department at least once.

Now Jannah is concerned for her 13-year-old grandson, who is about 6 feet tall. “I know I see him as a big, tall, skinny kid whom I love, but I’m worried someone may see him as a grown man,” she said.

BOE Vice President Priscilla Church said it is time for everyone to accept responsibility.

“We have this swell, and then it dies. I hope that this is the tipping point,” Church said.

BOE letter superintendent
COURTESY MONTCLAIR BOARD OF EDUCATION Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker speaks during the June 3 BOE meeting.

MHS Principal Anthony M. Grosso encouraged parents in a letter to have “difficult conversations.”

“Encourage them and one another to think critically, to speak honestly, and to have what may be difficult conversations, as it pertains to race and injustice. Most importantly, we as parents and educators need to appropriately model our expectations for future generations, so that change can take place,” he wrote.

Grosso included an excerpt from “Children Will Listen,” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods”:

“Careful the things you say, Children will listen.

Careful the things you do, Children will see.”

On June 3, just prior to the BOE meeting, the Montclair Education Association presented a Zoom forum in which panelists discussed aspects of institutional racism, equity, and how the events in Minneapolis and elsewhere were connected to issues facing the Montclair schools.

The specific topics included whether police officers should be present in the schools, academic tracking, microaggressions that students of color experience in the classroom, and the nature of schools and police forces as institutions, including whether those institutions were ever meant to be equitable in the first place.

Both Parker and Jannah were among the attendees, as was incoming Superintendent Jonathan Ponds.

Over the weekend, high school students from around Montclair organized a Unity March. Students from Essex County will hold an event, the N.J. Student Blackout, on June 19, the date of Juneteenth, on Lloyd Road near Montclair Kimberley Academy.

“We must continue to have courageous conversations with each other and seek to inspire non-violent solutions to our fears and concerns,” Parker wrote in his letter. “Montclair Public Schools is a place where these conversations take place around a framework of equity and restorative justice.”