JACKSON – Parents and students spoke out about the district’s handling of a controversial photograph taken by Jackson Liberty High School students on Oct. 13 that hit social media, a student protest that followed the photo, and racial tension during an Oct. 17 Board of Education meeting.
The highly charged meeting was relocated to the Fine Arts Center at Jackson Memorial High School to accommodate a larger audience. About 20 people, most of whom were African American, spoke during a special comment period set by Superintendent Stephen Genco.
Genco acknowledged that the emotional issue was what brought many people to the auditorium and he felt the matter should be addressed first. He described the incident involving 16 Jackson Liberty High School students who spelled out “WE R ALL NI**AS” by using lettered shirts while standing side-by-side. Two students sported paw prints on their shirts that represent the school’s Lions mascot, which were used to display the last word, representing a slang version of a derogatory racial slur toward African Americans. This occurred after seniors from the school assembled to take a traditional senior class photo on the football field.
After the photo was completed and as students were heading back to class, students began taking various candid photos of themselves, and a group of students assembled on their own so their shirts spelled out the phrase that included the divisive word.
The photograph hit social media outlets and angered many who viewed it. In response to the incident, Jackson Liberty High School Principal Maureen Butler questioned the intentions of the students involved and stated in a letter to parents that she did not feel any malice or disrespect was meant by any of the students in the photograph.
“We talked to a few of the students because it was circulating and had racial overtones though it was not meant to be malicious but it was very inappropriate. We would never ignore anything of that magnitude,” Genco said during the meeting.
A student protest involving between 40 and 50 students took place on Oct. 16 criticizing the handling of the matter by district officials and condemning the use of the word shown in the photograph.
Dana Gasiorowski said that “students need to learn how to advocate for unity in a better way and that history needs to be focused on in school.”
“Responsibility for educating our children about tolerance and diversity begins in the home and should be supported in our schools,” Gasiorowski added.
Tamara Osbourne, a parent who said she and her family moved to Jackson in August, said she was also alarmed about the incident. “My daughter told me what happened and said that ‘I told you moving here would be a disaster.’ Is this a district that wants to condone or tolerate this?”
Emmanuel Clay said he moved to Jackson in 2006 and has a daughter and two sons. He was among the parents who were aware of the student protest.
“I don’t put full blame on what happened on the district. It is a microcosm of our current times,” he said.
Clay said he was with parents to monitor the protest and to speak to administrators about the initial incident and its handling by staff. “The e-mail was vague. I know the vernacular of youth. There is no way to use that word. The letter (by Butler) was a slap in the face from the administration. A penalty should be served for their (students involved in the photo) actions. That is a picture that will never be able to be retrieved. I’ve been called that word.”
Fellow parent Lisa Hall said “my son has been called the “N” word a number of times at Jackson Liberty and has been pushed around. I was at the protest to make sure he wouldn’t be pushed around. Please do not take this lightly. Take care of our children.”
Dr. Selene Haskins said her son quit the football team three weeks prior to the end of the football season due to a racial incident that she said had been condoned by district staff.
“Racism is alive in Jackson and it is time to take a stand,” she said.
Felicia Daniels said she was a member of the first graduating class of Jackson Liberty HS and that she was glad the photo went public “so it could be discussed. I hope you take this action seriously,” she told board members.
Some speakers offered to assist the district with bringing about a dialogue with students about racism and how to properly communicate their views.
Fred Rush, president of the Lakewood division of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) which also covers Jackson, was critical of Hutler’s letter.
“I think Ms. Butler should have called the superintendent right away. I don’t think this was a case of children being children. This took a lot of thought. The board has the responsibility to work with the superintendent to find solutions,” she said.
“I was taught never to use that word,” said Dr. Michael Rush, the vice president of the Lakewood NAACP. “Things happen for a reason. This comes at a time when our nation is under a lot of duress. I do believe this wasn’t done out of malice but when an adult advisor is on the property that person should answer to this. In terms of discipline these are seniors and this will be out (on social media) for some time. I hope no student has their scholarship taken away.”
Both NAACP speakers offered the services of their organization to the district in providing speakers and program ideas.
Dr. Kimberly Giles, who has a daughter attending the district and who works in the area of affirmative action in Brick, also offered her services.
Jackson Liberty High School student Emily Vinino was among several students who spoke during the evening. “This was inexcusable. My peers didn’t think about their actions. I hear this word and others like it in school on a daily basis.”
Parent Lou Jordan was one of the last speakers of the night. “A lot has been said about our children. Children always come first. If we truly care about our children we need to touch flesh and by that I mean talk to each other, not at each other.”
Genco said the thoughts shared at the board meeting were powerful and heartfelt, and reflect those heard in small group and class level discussions this week at Jackson Liberty High School.
“It is our responsibility to answer their questions about what are we doing to protect our children from words and actions that are hateful and hurtful,” Genco said. “They want to know we are doing all we can to ensure that students, staff and parents understand both historical and present-day multi-cultural perspectives.”
Genco added in a statement issued on Oct. 20 that “we have identified additional ways we can continue to educate people of all ages and backgrounds about how we can better relate to each other,” he said. “We are also working with community and organizational leaders to design multiple opportunities to offer education and meaningful, facilitated discussions.”