Home Haddonfield News Haddonfield School District examines what it means to be anti-racist

Haddonfield School District examines what it means to be anti-racist

Virtual town hall meeting builds on events of the summer months.


Building on a town hall in late June that was an outgrowth of unrest across the country in the wake of the May killing of George Floyd, the Haddonfield School District hosted a second, virtual gathering on Oct. 26 that focused on what it means to be anti-racist.

The event was moderated once more by Dr. Shelley Zion of Rowan University, a collaborator with the district on matters of diversity. She set the tone for the discussion by advising, “I invite you to focus on your listening for understanding, rather than overlaying your own perspective and experience on the topic.”

Zion offered three key ideas to guide any conversation: Define what is racist, what do we mean when we talk about being not racist and what does it mean to be anti-racist?

“We have all been impacted by racist ideas in this country, and racism is a part of the institutions that we live and work in every day,” she intoned.

Zion was joined by 10 panelists from the community who each presented a case for improvement across the board in examining standards and practices to remove bias, prejudice and racism.

Superintendent Chuck Klaus revealed how he was given the task, as assistant superintendent, to oversee the district’s strategic goal of cultural competency. He spoke from an administrative point of view in reviewing district hiring practices,  the pressing need for diverse staff and placing people of color in leadership roles. Klaus also cited the need to recognize passivity and complacency and remove that attitude to affect change. 

“People of color, for years, were seen as custodial or maintenance workers,” he admitted. “So, for a long time, children coming through our district did not see people of color in leadership roles, as teachers or administrators.”

Residents of Haddonfield do not see persons of color patrolling the borough, as acknowledged by Haddonfield Police Chief Jason Cutler, who pledged nonetheless, that “things that have happened in the past, that should never happen, and on my watch will never happen again.”

Cutler also mentioned the number of residents who have contacted the department “to weaponize police” against so-called suspicious persons of color walking on borough streets, what he called out as a racist mindset. 

“We have to educate the residents to that fact. They don’t look in the mirrors and see that (the thought process is racist),” he said. 

Resident John Talton pointedly thanked Cutler and the police department for not picking him up on his walks through town and revealed that the Human Relations Commission is expected to hold a discussion at some point in November around the 2016 Netflix documentary “13th,” from filmmaker Ava DuVernay. 

Additional testimonials came from seniors at Haddonfield Memorial High School, Alexa King and Mehki Rippey, who were part of the local student contingent that led the protest along Kings Highway on June 24. 

“I notice when we discuss race … we tend to discuss it as a historical thing: Slavery. Jim Crow. Civil Rights, and poof, it’s over. That’s a damaging way to look at it,” said King, who is White. 

“High-schoolers have short attention spans, but when you look at the systemic nature of racism in a way that’s hard to connect to, it becomes difficult to see it as an immediate issue.” 

Rippey, who is Black, revealed his arc of maturity in Haddonfield has been forged almost exclusively through the prism of race, offering, “I went on a pretty big journey here at the high school.”  

Originally well aware of how unwelcome he was made to feel just four years ago, Rippey noticed changes both subtle and overt, starting with his peers, that leave him hopeful for a better future. 

“It’s scary to witness the death and the terror that’s happened in the country, but seeing the people in this community rising up to help, as opposed to four years ago, is heartening,” Rippey concluded. 

Board President Adam Sangillo provided the final fuel to focus future discourse. He assailed the damaging nature of social media as the barrier to effective communication, saying, “The goal is to be uncomfortable in person. It’s talking to your neighbors and stepping outside your front door to find out what’s going on.”

Full video of the town hall can be found on the HSD Broadcast YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVnq2IeeoZE.

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