Parent group sues school district over alleged segregation

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

“We have completely failed our children, and it’s time that the school district is held accountable,” said Walter Fields, chair of the Black Parents Workshop.

Fields and the Black Parents Workshop have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District, or SOMA, on behalf of African-American students, they claim the district deliberately segregates into less challenging courses.

“We want the same opportunities for our children as any white family. And so the notion that South Orange and Maplewood is some integrated community that’s diverse and progressive is false when you look at the history of how it’s treated African-American children,” said Fields.

“We have several instances of kids who were ready, willing, able to move up, and they weren’t allowed to,” said civil rights attorney Robert Tarver Jr.

Tarver says the district tracks students into courses with different levels of difficulty and routinely restricts black kids from taking advanced classes. The lawsuit cites data like freshman Advanced Geometry class enrollment. In 2016-2017, the course had nine black students, or 13 percent, compared to 61 white kids, or 87 percent. The following year, in 2017-2018, there were 10 black students, or 10 percent, versus 89, or 90 percent, white students.

That in a district that’s 32 percent African-American and 53 percent white. The disparity is stark and deliberate, Tarver claims.

“We can say, I think with reasonable certainty, that this is not an accident. That this is a determination that the district has made about how they are going to treat children of color,” he said.

The recent complaint is only the latest action in a long-simmering dispute. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights looked into the situation and found what it called a “statistically significant under-representation of African-American students” in the high school’s Advanced Placement courses.

The district signed a resolution agreement and promised the federal government it would fix the problem. The Office of Civil Rights on Friday said it ” … cannot discuss any case-specific information …” and ” … will monitor the case until the district is in compliance with the statute(s) …”

Tarver says the district has done nothing.

“They were required to report every year the progress that they were making. But guess what? Four years went by. No reporting to the Office of Civil Rights. No accountability,” said Tarver. “And that’s why we’ve filed this complaint.”

Alex Shalom interviewed South Orange-Maplewood students four years ago when New Jersey’s ACLU also filed a civil rights complaint against the district.

“The conversations we were having with young people, it was to a person, that they reported pressures, subtle and not subtle, for African-American students to go into the lower-tracked classes, and for white students to go into the higher-tracked classes. To a person,” said Shalom.

Walter Fields’ daughter, Jordan, recalled her Algebra teacher’s explicit comment.

“I did not belong in a level 5 math class. And I realized in that class, I overheard her telling kids that, ‘Maybe you should just move down. I don’t think you’re getting this material.’ And it was really only students of color. She wasn’t saying this to the white students in the class,” said Jordan. “And I was just so frustrated, because I knew how smart I was.”

She’s now a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. The complaint filed this week alleges segregation starts early in the district, that Seth Boyden Elementary School, 65 percent African-American, while others only a mile away are mostly white. It claims tracking students into different class levels is outmoded and invalid, and asks for remedies. The district superintendent, meanwhile, recently admitted they’ve got a problem.

“We have open and visible segregation in the elementary schools, and classroom segregation at the high school level. We have to stop finding reasons to delay. It’s time to snap out of analysis paralysis,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra. “It’s time to implement best practices.”

The school board voted to consolidate 11 levels of math and science classes. It will also strengthen outreach for advanced class registration, and will move to eventually desegregate the district’s elementary schools, according to a statement. The district had no comment on the lawsuit.