‘I want Black students to feel valued’: Newark Global Studies students describe pattern of racism

Gabriel Watkins clasps his hands as he watches Philonise Floyd react to the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of his brother, George Floyd, during a discussion between Northfield High School student council officers and members in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.
The Black Student Union at the Newark high school is demanding a culture and leadership change following ongoing incidents of racism.  (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

When Brenda Brown read what the Newark School of Global Studies had to offer, she knew her son had to go. 

Brown’s son, Terril Coley, was excited about being immersed in a high school that offered a global perspective, where he could study different cultures and prepare to study abroad in Taiwan or the Middle East. It seemed like a good deal for a young Black man from Newark, but three years after starting at Global Studies, Coley is about to transfer out after enduring racism and harassment from his peers.

During last month’s board of education meeting, Coley spoke out about the ongoing harassment and described being bullied in front of his teacher and classmates because of the color of his skin. 

“I was called a ‘smart chimpanzee’ in my English class,” said Coley to district leaders during the board meeting.

Interviews with students, parents, and teachers reveal a pattern of racist harassment at Global Studies against Black students, who are the minority at the school where Hispanic students make up 70% of the student body, according to state enrollment data from last fall

Black students and parents at the school have complained to school and district leaders but describe an administration that isn’t taking the situation seriously enough. They have also said there are delays in reporting incidents to parents and lax enforcement of disciplinary action against offending students, forcing some parents such as Brown to transfer their children out of the school. Community leaders say leaving these issues unattended could lead to further strife between the groups of students.

The ongoing harassment prompted one student to start the Black Student Union and rally his peers to speak out at the November school board meeting.

Black Student Union members and their parents are calling for a leadership change at the school, specifically a replacement for principal Nelson Ruiz, and stronger policies to prevent and discipline students who engage in racism. 

The district’s student discipline policy, which was revised in July 2022, notes that “the school district will not tolerate acts of harassment, intimidation or bullying.”

District spokesperson Nancy Deering, Global Studies Principal Nelson Ruiz, and Vice Principal Hoda Abdelwahab did not respond to requests for comment. 

Global Studies first opened its doors in 2020 welcoming 114 ninth graders to the high school where they study diplomacy, learn Arabic, or take courses in economics while gaining fluency in Chinese culture and language. Of those students, more than half identified as Hispanic, while 31% identified as Black at the time. Last school year, the number of Black students dropped to 26% while Hispanic students rose to 70%, according to state enrollment data from last fall. 

Enrollment data for this school year is not available, but Black students say representation on campus has declined due to “consistent instances” of racism against them, according to David Allen, a junior at the high school who founded the school’s Black Student Union at the end of last year. 

Allen, who is also student body president, said he started the club to give Black students a safe space on campus. The fact that the club wasn’t created when the school opened is “telling of the culture” within the school, he said. 

“The issues that happened last year were a lot more verbally violent,” Allen told Chalkbeat Newark while describing the threats and racial slurs he’s heard from his peers over the years. “But it’s also been a little ostracizing because, obviously, people know that the few Black students are the ones that are reporting the racism.”

The incident targeting Coley this October sparked outrage with his peers and mother, who said it took days until the school told her what had happened even after the teacher who witnessed the incident filed a report with administrators. It took nearly three weeks until administrators met with Brown on Nov. 3 and took action, which ultimately resulted in the suspension of one student, Brown said. 

The frustration felt by Black students reached a tipping point at the end of last school year when Allen’s best friend, a Black and Muslim student, was called a racial slur used against Black people and a terrorist as they were walking down the hallway. The student who insulted Allen’s best friend was previously suspended for two days for using similar language against another student, Allen said. 

“He still says the same things, so obviously, the disciplinary action wasn’t severe enough,” Allen said of the student who said the slurs. “People need to be disciplined for these things. Like, it’s not just words, these kinds of things can lead to violence on both parts.”

D’Renna Johnson is the director of the Newark Community Street Team’s Safe Passage program, which helps students get to and from school safely. Johnson said it’s important for schools to cultivate a space of trust so students feel comfortable reporting instances of bullying or harassment. 

The Street Team, a community-based organization that works on violence reduction strategies, also monitors conflicts between students and works to intervene in instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying before they lead to violence.

“As an adult, our responsibility is to try to get in front of that situation,” Johnson said. 

In the past, the Street Team has dealt with racial conflicts among high schoolers and has heard of students calling on “older brothers and sisters to handle things in a dangerous way” or other adults who may resort to violence to settle issues, Johnson said. The Street Team resolves issues by bringing students together to talk about their differences before conflict can turn into physical confrontation, Johnson said. 

“Let’s come to a medium where we could coexist together in this city and know that we’re not going to cause each other any harm,” Johnson added.

Allen’s best friend is the daughter of Newark’s board of education president Dawn Haynes and no longer attends the high school due to the ongoing racism she experienced at the school, Haynes said. Her daughter, a “super honor roll” student and the former student body secretary, did not feel comfortable continuing her education at the school, Haynes said. 

“If a child’s school is not welcoming, how are they going to learn?” said Haynes to Chalkbeat Newark.

Administrators slow to address complaints about racism

Before the incident with his best friend, Allen recalled, a group of students made racist jokes about blackface and Black stereotypes in his history class last year. 

The district’s Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying policy require the high school’s two anti-bullying specialists to investigate “any gesture, written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it is single incident or series of incidents,” reported to administrators, especially if the incident “is perceived as being motivated by race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation,” among other characteristics. 

Prior to the incident with his best friend in June, Allen and four of his friends compiled audio recordings of students using racial slurs during class and made a list of instances when Black students faced harassment and reported it to the school’s vice principal, Hoda Abdelwahab, last November. She promised she would investigate the situation, Allen said. 

After turning in their compilations to administration last fall, Allen said the harassment continued from the same group of students. According to Allen, he and his best friend met with administration in June to report the racial slurs said in the hallway. That’s when they found out it was the first time administrators were hearing about the racism they were experiencing, Allen added. 

“We found out that she never shared any of what we shared with her with the rest of the administration,” Allen said. “So, this is kind of a pattern with them. They’ll pretend they’re going to do something, and then kind of just sweep it under the rug and pray for the best and hope it just goes away.”

Allen was part of the group that attended the November board of education meeting and, like Coley, he told board members how he and his friends have been called “the n-word, a monkey, a slave, a caricature.”

At the November board meeting, Superintendent Roger León made a promise to fix the problems at Global Studies and visited the high school the following day to chat with Allen and other students, Allen said. But three weeks since students presented their concerns to the district, there has been no change, Allen added. 

“It’s unacceptable today, in the past, and tomorrow for you to be raising an issue that adults are supposed to fix. You will help us fix it, but I promise you, it will be fixed,” said León to Allen during the November board meeting

A teacher at Global Studies who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation said they see how the situation is “psychologically damaging” to Black students. During lunchtime, the teacher said they have seen Black students sitting alone. When asked why they seem sad, students say they feel uncomfortable at school. The teacher said parents, educators, and students have tried to handle these issues internally, but nothing has changed. 

“The kids tried, they’ve been trying for years while they were there and the adults who were put there in charge to take care of them and make sure they’re treated fairly turned a blind eye to stuff,” the teacher said. 

Johnson, a Newark native, said she hopes administrators can find solutions to the racist harassment Black students are describing because “she loves her community” and the people that make up her city. 

“Keeping our kids safe is our priority because there’s so much stuff going on in this world, so much stuff going on in the city,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, Allen, the Global Studies junior, says he is juggling roles as student body president and founder of the Black Student Union, as well as a busy schedule and heavy class load, so he can only do so much to help. He hopes the district and leaders at his school find a way to make the experience of Black students better at the high school. 

“They handle these matters the way a lot of non-Black people do. It’s very uncomfortable to talk about race, very uncomfortable. I understand that,” Allen said. “But the conversations are important, especially when they’re not being had.” 

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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