The conversation became heated at times on Monday night, as the Montclair school Board of Education attempted to answer some of the questions parents had, weeks after the district’s student equity advocate gave a talk about his first nine months on the job.

On Nov. 7, Joseph Graham spoke to the board and parents about what he had learned so far. At a subsequent BOE meeting, his presentation received praise as well as criticism from the Montclair Education Association, the union that represents teachers and other district employees.

Part of Monday’s meeting, said Superintendent Kendra Johnson, was intended to clarify some of what had been included in Graham’s initial presentation. The role of a student equity advocate is to act as a liaison between students and families and the district.

Johnson also presented some revised numbers on the number of cases that Graham had dealt with.

On Nov. 7, Graham’s presentation reported that 150 cases had come to his attention since he started work in April. But on Monday, Johnson said there had been 139 incidents involving 107 individual students.

The largest number was at Montclair High School: 111 incidents, involving 82 students.

A case, she says, refers to an individual student, while an incident refers to an individual allegation.

Johnson also discussed when incidents, including racial discrimination, sexual harassment or religious discrimination, and child abuse and neglect, are to be reported to administrators. Most discrimination-related incidents are reported to administration within 24 hours.

Graham came to the microphone after Johnson had finished speaking, and gave a short talk on some of the projects that the district was working on, including improving graduation rates among students of color and decreasing the number of students who have to repeat a grade.

The principals had been good at helping identify families who were in need of resources, such as after-school help for their children, or who were having problems with attendance, Graham said. And a phone call or a visit could go a long way with families, he said.

“Mr. Graham, thank you,” BOE Vice President Joe Kavesh said. “And don’t take offense at this question. Have you felt, shall we say, kneecapped since your Nov. 7 presentation?”

“No, I haven’t,” Graham said, laughing.

Tempers flare

Kavesh and MEA chair Petal Robertson exchanged critical words during the meeting, Robertson criticizing Kavesh for a remark he had made at the last BOE meeting on Dec. 5. That night, Kavesh said, “If I were in Mr. Graham’s shoes, I might be looking for another job, because it appears there are some people who want to run him out of town.”

Robertson responded to that directly Monday, saying that, “I would hope that in the new year, in your leadership position, you make decisions to refrain from divisive and inflammatory comments, so we can continue to communicate respectfully at these meetings.”

“That is not an appreciated comment whatsoever,” Kavesh replied. “When these meetings end, I don’t get into a car and drive down to Monmouth County. I’m here in the community. So I don’t appreciate the fact that on multiple occasions, you have singled me out. You never single out anyone else on this board. I don’t appreciate that.”

Robertson told Kavesh that her professional background included 14 years of advocacy for children. She also said she had never questioned his advocacy for students, but said he allegedly saw fit to question hers.

Kavesh told Robertson again that he objected to the comments, before ending the conversation.

Audience reactions

James Harris, who follows education issues for the Montclair NAACP, said that after Graham’s initial presentation in November, he reached out both to Graham and Johnson on the matter.

Harris also attended the meeting, and thanked Johnson and Graham for their work. He also inquired where the district stood on addressing the issue of the achievement gap, and on the timeline for hiring a new assistant superintendent for equity.

One thing that was important to remember, Harris told Montclair Local last week, was that Graham’s talk should not be seen as the outcome of an official investigation. It was unfortunate, he said, that members of the public came away with that impression.

Racial discrimination is a topic that much of Montclair is reluctant to discuss openly, Harris said. Discrimination would continue to be a problem as long as the town did not have an open dialogue on it.

But it was hard to ignore the fact that Montclair’s achievement gap falls largely along racial and ethnic lines, he said: Black and Latino students are statistically less likely to do well in the classroom than white and Asian students.

Kellia Sweatt, a district parent and a member of the National Independent Black Parents Association, said that there were a lot of good teachers in the district, noting that her mother had taught in the Montclair schools in the past. But, she said, the district still had its share of problems. She told the board that there were problems with personnel such as security guards, lunchroom staff and office staff discriminating against students.

Sweatt pointed to one incident in which a white student had allegedly used a racial slur against a black student. The student went to the school to report to the incident only to be passed along from administrator to administrator, with the result that nothing was done.
What the district needed most of all, she said, was commitment.

“It’s going to get uncomfortable. But someone’s going to have to do it,” she said.

Parent Khareeda DeFreece, who attended the Nov. 7 meeting, thanked Graham for both of his presentations.

“We’re going to have to tell the truth, and be honest” if anything was going to be done about Montclair’s equity issues, she said. “Black parents, we are here, we are not being ignored anymore.”

But Justin Thompson called the presentation “watered-down,” compared to the initial presentation. “It felt like it was intended to pacify certain stakeholders in this district,” he said.

The numbers, even in their revised form, were still high, and the district should look into hiring a second student equity advocate, he said.

He added, “I’m still trying to grapple why this district keeps kicking the can down the road when it comes to teachers that shouldn’t be in the same building with our children, let alone educating.”

Robertson stressed that the MEA’s top concern is “advocacy for our students.” She added that the presentation still left the MEA with some questions, especially about documentation and accountability.

“I say this to say that simply presenting again several weeks later still without documentation and substantial responses to those stakeholders like us who have questioned is like a futile resolution."

She again stressed the need for accountability. “Because at the end of the day that is the only way we will serve our marginalized students,” Robertson said.