Montclair student equity advocate talks first months on job
PHOTO BY ERIN ROLL/STAFF
By ERIN ROLL
Joseph Graham deals with students who say they are victims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, academic sabotage, HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) denial and in student crises.
Appointed as the Montclair the district’s student equity advocate in April, Graham has recorded 150 cases. That number, he told the Board of Education on Nov. 7, only scratches the surface of the problems that Montclair students suffer, from academic problems to conflicts with other students and staff.
A student equity advocate helps students address problems that may be negatively affecting their life in the classroom. The advocate’s role often involves acting as a liaison between the student, their family and school staff and administrators, when a student alleges negative experiences in the classroom are getting in the way of a fair education.
Graham’s discussions with students remain confidential, unless school administrators need to know due to safety concerns.
Racial discrimination incidents account for 20 percent of cases, followed by issues with matriculation and graduation, academic sabotage and student crisis, Graham said.
For example, black girls at the high school may find themselves being targeted over clothing choices more often than their peers in other groups.
With academic sabotage, a student may be discouraged from taking advanced academic courses, or be put onto an academic track that doesn’t lead to advanced courses, he said.
HIB denials are a situation in which a student reports a case of bullying to a teacher, Graham said, but the teacher or administrator tells the student that the incident is not a serious one.
Graham remarked that he’s probably given out more business cards than any other staffer in the district.
Sometimes, staff will refer a student to him. Other times students seek him out, or tell their classmates about him.
“This is not a shy district when it comes to our student population,” he said.
Montclair High School students involve 70 percent of his cases, followed by Buzz Aldrin at 8.8 percent and Renaissance at 6.1 percent.
Male and female students equally seek him out. But most are black, at 85 percent, he said.
“With the concerns I’ve addressed, it’s about solutions, it’s about a plan,” Graham said.
BOE Vice President Joe Kavesh inquired about rates of homelessness among students, which Graham could not supply. However, he said the cost of living is an issue in Montclair, as families move to the district, but have trouble finding affordable housing.
“I’m not giving you an order, but please report back to us on that. It’s unacceptable,” Kavesh said.
“One thing that surprised me on here was the HIB denials,” board member Anne Mernin said, noting that there is a formal process for reporting and investigating bullying incidents. “That seems to be low-hanging fruit.”
Superintendent Kendra Johnson said the district was in the process of addressing some of the issues reported by Graham.
“Let me tell you, students - they know what to say and what not to say, and how far to communicate,” Graham said. “One thing I can tell you is I’m committed to being student equity advocate, and whatever avenue I need to pursue to keep students safe, I will.”