Haddonfield School District confronts impact of current events

Conversation on race in the borough intended to influence policy.

The eyes of the borough were opened on June 24 when a student-led peaceful demonstration called attention to itself as participants marched along Kings Highway.

Continuing the illumination, five days later, Haddonfield School District held a virtual town hall meeting on the subject of race and racism and its impact on education.  

The 90-minute discussion, led by Dr. Shelley Zion from Rowan University, was split into two segments: one where panelists discussed their experiences with race and racism in the borough, and the other where  those who wanted to advance the cause offered their experience and solutions. 

“There is nothing new here in this conversation. This is not about one incident,” Zion stated to kick off the event. “It is at the forefront of our minds due to the intersection of a series of events that first started 400 years ago,  and is now occurring and brought to our attention by the disparate impacts that the African American community has faced.

“It is the accumulation of the system of anti-blackness and white supremacy. For white people who want to be allies, now is the time to take action.”

Among the personal testimony shared, Jada Eible Hargro, a rising junior at Haddonfield Memorial High School, spoke about her peers’ derogatory comments about her hairstyle. She said she often revisits the experience when searching for explanations for these kinds of behaviors, and believes that racism in Haddonfield is due directly to a fundamental lack of experience with others of color. 

Madeline Main, a mixed-race former tuition student who graduated from HMHS in 2012, admitted she only now recognizes the harm and impact that certain coded microaggressions had on her educational experience. 

“I forgave those comments, because I was ignorant of how to express myself, and because there were more obvious expressions of hate that existed,” she said. 

Main also mentioned HMHS’ presentation of “The Wiz,” a musical created by and for Black people, that was staged without a Black student in a starring role, a particular sore point she wished she could have called out. 

Dean of Student Life Hamisi Tarrant recalled that he’d been pulled over by the police 13 times, and that a palpable fear of the other in more affluent surroundings is something he’s had to reckon with his whole life.

“I’ve dealt with women tightening their grip on their bags,” he noted. “I’m used to people moving away or locking their doors. My dilemma is overcoming that fear every day when I step outside. How do I come to grips with it? A lot of it was conversations I had, about fear and the racism in Haddonfield.

 

“As we move forward with this conversation,” Tarrant added, “we can’t stop. It has to be an ongoing dialogue.” 

Building on that idea, rising HMHS senior Mehki Rippey added that while he himself never feels unsafe as a Haddonfield resident, he lives with the knowledge that many of his peers see no repercussions for their actions.

Addressing the Amistad Curriculum, Holocaust Curriculum and lack of education on both throughout the district, HMHS alumna Kacie Brandenburg called upon administrators to teach Black history for more than just one month a year, to expand a diverse educational model to all scholastic levels, and to hire Black teachers for positions across the curriculum, not just in history. 

In a prepared statement, Brandenburg offered: “Students should be presented with facts and exposed to the whole truth of U.S. history. And by no means should they graduate from HMHS without being able to recognize systemic racism, oppression, and white privilege.” 

Brandenburg and her sister Zoe — also a local alumna — have set up 

a petition urging educators and public officials to embrace an anti-racist educational model: http://chng.it/SbSwY4QnWz

HMHS English and special-ed teacher Stacey Brown-Downham, who has logged 13 years as an educator in the district, managed to formally acknowledge the elephant in the room during her remarks.

“One of the greatest obstacles to this kind of work is white fragility. That can be the beginning for some of you, to stop denying there is racism, start showing up and believing people of color,” she urged those watching. 

“Being non-racist is not enough. It’s a matter of life and death. There’s no time for coddling each other.”  

A 30-year teacher and facilitator of the HMHS social studies department, Jeff Boogaard spoke of professional development as key to keeping fresh and current. Last summer, he was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and did a deep dive into Civil Rights history in Alabama for three weeks. 

“I really wish that we could spend more of an effort in showcasing humanities courses,” Boogaard lamented. “We have more students signed up to take U.S. history online for next year than are signed up to take (the elective) Race, Class and Gender.”

Zion concluded with a caution that those who have an anti-racist mindset should be prepared to be liked significantly less than prior to declaring their intent. 

“What we’re really looking for are not allies, so much as accomplices.” 

A video of the forum can be found on the HSD Broadcast YouTube channel, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJwy7oo9bV8.