Racist slurs, parent pleas: Emails reveal long battle to address harassment at Newark’s Global Studies

Cropped view of elementary students walking single file in a school hallway.
Newark School of Global Studies students transferred after months of describing racist harassment. (kali9 / Getty Images)

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Students from the Newark School of Global Studies endured months of racial harassment and abuse before they pleaded for help to the school board in November. 

One student described being called a “smart chimpanzee” in his English class. Another told board members how he and his friends have been called “the n-word, a monkey, a slave, a caricature.”

Board members listened intently to students describe microaggressions and racial slurs, and Superintendent Roger León promised students he would fix the problems. But this was not the first time some board members and León had heard about the racial tensions at the school. 

Emails obtained by Chalkbeat Newark show that school and district leaders had known about the issues since at least May of last year. Early last fall, emails show, a parent repeatedly reached out to León, principal Nelson Ruiz, vice principal Hoda Abdelwahab, and other school leaders begging for an end to the ongoing harassment and demanding stronger consequences for students who used derogatory language. 

Even since that November meeting, some students said they were called racial slurs in the hallway and heard other students make jokes about blackface and lynchings. Most recently, a student did not face any consequences after threatening to “rip off and step on” the hijab of two teachers in January, according to an interview with teachers. 

Several students transferred mid-year, including the Black Student Union president and the daughter of school board president Dawn Haynes, and at least one teacher resigned. Some students have also reported having issues getting their transfers approved and battling with guidance counselors for transcripts in January. 

The district’s spokesperson, Nancy Deering, Ruiz, and Abdelwahab did not respond to emailed questions about the transfers and issues at Global Studies.

The district launched a corrective action plan at the school, but details about the plan have not been shared with the public despite multiple emails for information from Chalkbeat Newark.  

The situation also garnered attention from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who met with students in December and is hosting a town hall event on March 8 to discuss unity among Black and brown communities.  

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Although district and school leaders met on several occasions in recent months, students, staff, and parents grew increasingly frustrated at what seemed to be an initial lack of response or sense of urgency, with at least one parent calling for the removal of Ruiz.

The problems at Global Studies — and the way school and district leaders handled the situation — reveal shortcomings in how Newark handled this racial harassment and how that affected the emotional well-being of students.

“Can you imagine,” one parent wrote in an Oct. 30, 2022 email to León, board member A’dorian Murray-Thomas, and the district’s student life office, “walking into a classroom or school feeling ostracized or made to feel less than because of the color of your skin?” 

Incidents of racist harassment fester

Three years ago, Global Studies welcomed its first freshman class of 114 ninth graders, promising students a global perspective and a chance to study different cultures. But last year, racial tensions at the campus, where 70% of students are Latino and 26% are Black, began to surface

In May, Haynes’ daughter — a Black and Muslim student — was called a terrorist and the “n-word” in the hallway, according to interviews with students and teachers at the high school. 

The student accused of using the racial slur was suspended for three days, according to a May 25, 2022 email from the parent of the student. The parent, whose name is redacted in the email, had asked Ruiz for another meeting to “clarify this whole situation.”

“I honestly don’t think that it’s fair for my son to be suspended 3 days and skip class for an allegation that might not be true,” the email read. “And it’s her word against his.”

Haynes’ daughter, a “super honor roll” student and the former student body secretary, did not feel comfortable continuing her education at the school and transferred out, Haynes told Chalkbeat in December.

Racial tensions on campus continued to build. In October 2022, another student who later transferred was called a “smart chimpanzee” during his English class. The student’s mother found out nearly two weeks later, filed a harassment, intimidation, and bullying report, and met with Ruiz, two department chairs, and two teachers about the incident, according to an email.

Over the next month, León received numerous concerned emails from the parent about the situation at Global Studies: 

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Oct. 29, 2022: “My son was called a racial and derogatory remark … No one reached out to me or spoke with my son!”

Nov. 3, 2022: Ruiz “spoke with no sense of urgency! He even paused for a minute to check his cell phone!”

Nov. 3 2022: “Mr. Ruiz apologized to my son, as well as myself, nice words … but no action plan, no sense of concern or validation. I’m very disappointed as a Black mother, especially in these critical times that we live in.”

At the November board meeting, Black Student Union members and a parent spoke out about the harassment and called for stronger policies to prevent and discipline students who engage in racism.

The next day, León visited the school to speak with students in the Black Student Union in an effort to ease tensions, according to a Dec. 3, 2022 email from a parent. 

But according to the email, the superintendent asked a student who had been called a racial slur in his English class if he would like a basketball team at the school.

“How fitting, let’s ask the Black students who were called monkeys to do what Black students are always asked to do, play sports, perform,” the parent whose name was redacted, wrote in the email, which was sent to León, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, and district staff.

As frustration with the school and district response mounted, parents started demanding changes; at least one asked for Ruiz to be removed as principal.

The parent also reached out to State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, the senate majority leader who represents Newark, asking for her help and describing concerns for her son.

“My son has been traumatized and I’m worried for his well-being,” wrote the parent, whose name was redacted in a Dec. 4, 2022 email to the state senator and district staff. 

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Teresa Ruiz’s office said they forwarded the email to the district and were told the matter was addressed. 

“Our office was notified by the school district that the parent was contacted and the matter was resolved,” according to an emailed statement to Chalkbeat, which also noted the state senator’s concern “anytime claims of harassment are raised.”

Newark works to address racial tensions

In early December, more than seven months after racist harassment on campus was first reported to district leaders, board members started taking action.

School and district leaders met with students in November and December. The situation also garnered attention from Baraka, who met with students separately in December to discuss the allegations.

But the meetings didn’t assuage all of the students’ concerns. By January, at least five more students, including the school’s Black Student Union founder, requested transfers to another district school, according to student comments during the January school board meeting. 

Newark Public Schools denied a Chalkbeat Newark public records request for the number of students who transferred out of Newark School of Global Studies during the previous and current school years.

The students’ anger spilled over at the January school board meeting, where former and current students expressed dissatisfaction with how their reports of racist harassment were handled.

Former Global Studies student Yamia Bermudez said León met with students on Jan. 3 and told them that “if they didn’t like the way the school was run, they could leave.” 

“The speech didn’t feel like it had any empathy and it gave very much, ‘if you don’t like it, then go home,’” said Bermudez during the meeting.

Allen, a former junior and student body president at the school, told board members he felt manipulated into working with them to solve the problems at the school.

“I won’t waste my breath asking any of you for anything, but I will leave you with this. I know no one in this room is brave enough to do what actually needs to be done,” Allen said during the meeting.

Allen requested a transfer in January but his request wasn’t granted until he refused to go back to school and his parents emailed Ruiz, Abdelwahab, and León about it, he said. Allen also said “a vast amount of students” were lined up outside of the guidance counselors’ offices the day after León said students who were unhappy with the school response could transfer. 

Karlene Grant, a junior at the high school, also told board members of the obstacles she faced when trying to transfer.

“I have asked to transfer and have been told by guidance counselors multiple times you cannot transfer or if you leave, how would that make us feel?” she said.

Murray-Thomas apologized to the students after they spoke and said changes were happening but not “at the rate that it needs to happen.”

Emails also show two parents requesting transfers for their children in December and January. One of those parents emailed León and the nine board members after experiencing trouble with her daughter’s transfer. She said she submitted the form four times online but had not heard back from the district or school staff.

“The staff keeps saying that they have not received the transfer my daughter had a breakdown in the school and she is very unhappy every day I feel she’s being punished, neglected and discriminated,” read a Jan. 21 email to León and the nine board members from a parent whose name was redacted.

In the email, the parent pleaded: “I am crying out for help to make sure my daughter receives a fair education.”

‘I was advised by my therapist to leave’

At the start of February, the school kicked off Black History Month not with the remembrance of African American contributions, but instead with celebrations of Lunar New Year, which began on Jan. 22 and ended on Feb. 5. 

Then-Black Student Union advisor and pre-AP English teacher Tammy Davis saw it as just another “culturally insensitive” slight to the Black students at the school. For months, she said, she had reached out to the principal and administrators about the “oppressive environment,” confrontations that she said resulted in mistreatment. By February, she was ready to leave.

On Feb. 13, Davis emailed her resignation to León and included a letter from her therapist describing the emotional toll she was enduring due to the situation. 

“I was advised by my therapist to leave because I had a session where I was essentially infuriated and she didn’t feel like it would be good for me to go back,” said Davis about a therapy session in early February. 

Within 30 minutes of receiving her emailed resignation, León released her from her role immediately, she said. 

“He didn’t say anything about it or say I’m sorry that these things happen. We need to have an emergency meeting. There was nothing,” said Davis about León’s reaction to her resignation. 

Davis also said she filed complaints about the harassment with the district’s human resource and affirmative action offices.

“I’m not giving up on this,” Davis said. “They will be held accountable for what they’ve done to not only the students but to us as professionals.”

At the end of February, according to the school’s Facebook page, Global Studies students celebrated the culture by presenting poems at a school assembly and participating in a performance where they “showcased their talents connected to Black History Month.”

Photos show students of all colors — smiling, listening to speakers, posing arm-in-arm. Among those pictured: Global Studies principal Ruiz, who is seen on stage dancing. 

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

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