Former Newark teachers suffered ‘emotional problems’ due to harassment, racial hostility, according to legal claims

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.
Two former Newark School of Global Studies teachers filed legal complaints against Newark Public Schools over racial harassment. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

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Two former Newark teachers claim they suffered “severe emotional problems” leading them to seek “psychological counseling” after experiencing racial harassment at a city high school, according to legal claims filed in June. 

Before resigning from their roles earlier this year, Tammy Davis and Nubia Lumumba, Black women and former English teachers at the Newark School of Global Studies, said they “suffered harassment and racial hostility by students and supervisors” last school year. The former Newark teachers also filed claims with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, which are currently being reviewed by the state. 

As a result of the “unlawful and unreasonable treatment” at Global Studies, both educators felt their “worth as a teacher and human being has been diminished,” according to a tort claim, a legal notice prior to a lawsuit that describes acts from a person or employer that harm another person.

Davis and Lumumba’s lawyer, David Balk of The Balk Law Firm, filed the claims on their behalf and named Global Studies principal Nelson Ruiz, vice principal Hoda Abdelwahab, department chair Shagun Kukeja, affirmative action officer Dr. Yolanda Mendez, and Newark Superintendent Roger León as recipients of the claim. The claim also says Davis and Lumumba complained about the harassment to Kukeja, Ruiz, and Abdelwahab during the school year.

The filings could lead to a lawsuit, Balk said. Under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, Davis and Lumumba can file a lawsuit six months after filing their claim.

“The claim was filed because both Ms. Lumumba and Ms. Davis were afforded no recognition of their legitimate complaints by the school administration or the board of education,” wrote Balk in an email to Chalkbeat Newark. 

The Newark Board of Education received the claims in June but two members of the board’s legal committee, where district leaders discussed the allegations, recused themselves from the conversation, according to the committee’s June report

The district does not comment on legal matters, Nancy Deering, Newark Public Schools’ acting communications director, said in an email to Chalkbeat Newark. Balk said he has not received a response from the district regarding the claims. 

“All along my clients’ concern was for the education system to make sure that students and teachers were treated with respect and consideration regardless of their ethnic background,” Balk added. 

The claims are the first legal actions against the district after students, teachers, and parents appeared at a school board meeting last November and described a pattern of racist harassment at Global Studies.

The students said they endured months of microaggressions and racial slurs from their peers and felt administrators did not issue stronger consequences with at least one parent calling for the removal of Ruiz, who has stayed in his role. Several students, including the Black Student Union president and the daughter of school board president Dawn Haynes, requested transfers mid-year.

Davis, the school’s former Black Student Union advisor, and Lumumba joined the students during the November meeting and spoke publicly about their experiences after their resignations in February and March respectively. 

The allegations also come after a review of the racial, cultural, and religious dynamics at Global Studies was completed this spring. The review, conducted by consulting firm CREED Strategies led by Dr. Lauren Wells, began in January and is the first mention of the district’s long-awaited plan to mend problems at the high school after the incidents surfaced last fall. 

But during a June press conference, León said details about the review will not be made public. During the June school board meeting, board members also said they have not reviewed the draft report from CREED Strategies. 

Balk, Davis, and Lumumba requested a copy of the review from Wells but so far have not received a response, according to emails shared with Chalkbeat Newark. 

In July, Newark Public Schools completed its own investigation of the incidents after Davis and Lumumba filed complaints with the district’s affirmative action office alleging Ruiz, Abdelwahab, and Kukreja created a hostile work environment at the high school based on race. 

According to a July 5 letter from Mendez, the district’s affirmative action officer, to Davis and Lumumba, the district did not find “sufficient evidence to support a finding of harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, or retaliatory conduct in violation of district, state, or federal laws.” 

Davis has said she resigned from her role in February after her therapist advised her to leave to protect her mental health. Lumumba resigned in March after six months of working at the school. 

Global Studies first opened its doors in 2020, welcoming 114 ninth graders to the high school where they study diplomacy, learn Arabic, and take courses in economics while gaining fluency in Chinese culture and language. 

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

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