African American residents and Morris School District officials were in agreement on one thing after meeting on Thursday night: More must be done to improve cultural awareness and sensitivity in the school system.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” the Rev. Leroy Aiken said about a flyer distributed last week at a Frelinghuysen Middle School concert.
The cover cartoon depicted a young singer in blackface, which for Aiken rekindled bad memories of white Morristown teachers reading Little Black Sambo to him decades ago.
Although some parents contend a bad printer transformed innocuous Clipart into an offensive stereotype, District officials reiterated apologies for allowing its distribution, and pledged new approval procedures to prevent such mistakes from recurring.
“I’m here to listen and learn,” Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast said during a two-hour public meeting he convened at FMS. “It’s a great opportunity in front of us.”
“I am deeply sorry for distribution of the chorus flyer program. I am committed to do better,” said Principal Joseph Uglialoro, echoing apologies sent to parents last week.
Going forward, a supervisor or administrator must approve all materials distributed to the public, a policy that’s overdue, the principal said.
But there was no explanation of who was responsible for the incident, or how it came about.
Pendergrast said he has asked the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights for help with the investigation, and told a questioner he legally could not discuss any disciplinary actions in the matter. He promised four community meetings annually, in response to public requests for followups.
Thursday’s predominantly black audience of several dozen people included representatives of the Morris chapter of the NAACP, the Morris County Human Relations Commission and, Black Lives Matter Morristown.
The Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center and Melanin Minds, an African American student group from Morristown High School, were there, too.
And so were Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and his fall opponent, Councilwoman Alison Deeb; other past and present town council members; school board members; and clergy.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughin and Ally Tobler
‘BACK OF THE BUS’
Many speakers commended school officials for their swift response — while asserting that educators must be made more aware of cultural differences within the community.
Morristown High School senior Nicole Williams, co-president of Melanin Minds, suggested they attend “workshops on diversity training and race relations.
“I don’t believe the teacher should be held responsible,” Williams said. “It is a bias our society encourages.”
Nicole Harris, a mother of two FMS students, said she texted the flyer picture to a friend, who is white.
“I had to explain the problem to her,” she said. “Honestly she had no clue, she didn’t know.”
“Racism is so subtle,” said one Morris School District alumna. “It is not until you’re educated about it can you point it out.”
Sophomore Bianca Singleton said she has been verbally insulted at the high school, adding: “It worries me that my sister is in this school [FMS]. She’s only 12.”
The concert flyer was not an isolated incident of racial insensitivity, according to longtime Morristown resident Helen Arnold.
A holiday concert at the Sussex Avenue School included an inappropriate song–Harry Belafonte’s Back of the Bus— for Kwanzaa, she said.
Going forward, schools may consult with religious groups about holiday music choices, answered Pendergrast, the superintendent.
‘DIVERSITY STARTS AT HOME’
At the forefront of the discussion was the need to educate students about what happened.
“How have you addressed this with the children?” former Morristown Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid asked Pendergrast and Uglialoro. “Middle school is that fragile point in a child’s life and that’s when they decide which way they’re going: The right way or the left way.”
School Board President Leonard Posey agreed.
“I think there needs to be an authentic, real conversation with kids at this level and other kids in the district about what happened, why it was offensive and talk to them about this meeting,” he said.
That can be challenging in such a diverse district, Uglialoro conceded.
Still, “students have to be part of anything we do here,” Pendergrast said.
Army veteran Carl Chiofolo, a parent who is white, said he was “disgusted” by the low turnout of white people at the meeting.
While praising the District’s efforts, he said parents are the best teachers of acceptance and understanding.
“Diversity starts at home,” Chiofalo said. “It’s our job to teach our children that the picture is not right. It starts with us and it ends with us.”
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.