Newark Teachers Union files lawsuit seeking release of Global Studies report

A gavel casts a shadow on top of a white table.
A lawsuit filed by the Newark Teachers Union is seeking to force the district to release a report analyzing the racial and cultural dynamics at the Newark School of Global Studies. (Catherine McQueen / Getty Images)

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The Newark Teachers Union is asking a judge to order the release of a report on the racial and cultural dynamics at Newark’s School of Global Studies that Superintendent Roger León said would remain internal. 

The union filed a lawsuit seeking the report after the district denied a public records request demanding the release of the scathing review of cultural, religious, and racial dynamics at Global Studies. The review was conducted after incidents of harassment against Black students and staff at the school surfaced a year ago. 

The district denied the union’s request in October, citing a legal exemption that allows draft documents or advisory documents prepared to recommend or form part of a deliberative process to be withheld from the public. 

The union filed the public records request on Sept. 29, a day after the regular board meeting that month. In both the public records request and the lawsuit, the union cites its “Common Law Right of Access,” or right to ask for the review, arguing that it has an interest in the release of the report and in knowing of any changes or recommendations to the district’s approach in handling student and staff issues related to “anti-blackness” or “cultural sensitivity,” ultimately affecting teachers in the district.

During the September meeting, community members, including the Newark Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also demanded the release of the full report. 

Earlier that week, the district had released three recommendations within the report, providing the first glimpse into the scathing review. 

“We were surprised that the board was not more forthcoming about what was in the report and more importantly, what they were going to be doing to resolve the issues that came up in the report,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, after the lawsuit was filed in Superior Court of New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. 

The union’s lawsuit is the first court battle against the district for the release of that report, conducted by consulting firm CREED Strategies led by Dr. Lauren Wells. The district has also received other public records requests for the release of the report, including two filed by Chalkbeat Newark. 

The review of the school began in January when board members approved a data-sharing agreement with CREED strategies in an attempt to mend problems after students spoke publicly last November about their experiences of racial harassment on campus. The issues drew heavy criticism from the community about the way the school and district leaders handled the situation and led several students to transfer and some teachers to resign. 

But during a June press conference, León said details about the review would not be made public but rather, would serve as “an internal document” to help inform a strategy to tackle racial issues in city schools. Details about that strategy have not been shared with the public.

During that press conference, León also said he would call on Global Studies principal Nelson Ruiz to help other principals deal with similar issues at their schools and provide guidance as needed.

In September, two days before the monthly regular board meeting, the district shared a glimpse of the unreleased report after it revealed three recommendations included in the review. The recommendations suggest Newark must assess the effects of “anti-Blackness” on the school system, foster conversations about racial issues, and commit to “culturally responsive-sustaining education transformation.”

In addition to the recommendations, principal evaluations were modified to include “equity indicators” and base performance on their school’s climate, among other existing criteria, according to a board committee report detailing the recommendations. 

But Abeigon said without knowing what the report says, it’s unclear the extent of how the situation affected its teachers. Board members have also called on León to share the report with the public. In August, the district told them they could read the report by setting up a time with them to view it. 

“But we try to be proactive, especially when the district is being less than forthcoming with information,” Abeigon added. 

Students and teachers were at the center of the racial and religious harassment at Global Studies. In August, two former teachers of the high school filed a legal notice against the district and claims with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights after suffering “severe emotional problems” because of the racial harassment they experienced at Global Studies, according to those teachers. 

They also filed a complaint with the district’s affirmative action office alleging principal Ruiz, vice principal Hoda Abdelwahab, who started a new position at Millburn Township Public Schools in August, and department chair Shagun Kukeja created a hostile work environment at the high school based on race. Newark Public Schools completed its own investigation of those incidents in July.

That review led by Yolanda Mendez, the district’s affirmative action office, did not find “sufficient evidence” to support a finding of harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, or retaliatory conduct in violation of district policy or state or federal laws. 

“At this point, we don’t know what we will find, but we are curious why they are so reluctant to share this document with the public,” Abeigon said. 

The incidents at the high school last fall also received attention from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who met with students last December and hosted a town hall this spring to discuss unity among Black and brown communities. 

Before the issues came to light last November, emails obtained by Chalkbeat Newark showed that parents emailed Ruiz,  Abdelwahab, and other school leaders begging for an end to the ongoing harassment. At least one parent called for the removal of Ruiz, who remains the principal of the school.

Global Studies first opened its doors in 2020 welcoming ninth graders to a high school offering a global perspective where students could study different cultures and prepare to study abroad. 

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

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