Newark school board members call for investigation at Science Park HS after reports of cultural insensitivity

Members of the Newark school board are demanding an investigation into what one member called a “crisis” at Science Park High School, following reports that a teacher wore a costume and made comments that deeply offended some students at the elite school.

The calls for an official investigation came after students said a white physical education teacher wore a Barack Obama mask and a “Make America Great Again” hat to school last Halloween, which some students and parents considered highly inappropriate and an example of blackface. Current and former students have said the same teacher has also made off-color remarks about black students’ hair.

“If teachers and staff members are conducting themselves in ways that are very disrespectful and belittling to our students, we need to check that,” said board member Kim Gaddy at the board’s public meeting Tuesday, where she called for an investigation. “I’m confident that this district will do what is required to rectify and abate that situation.”

The P.E. teacher’s costume, which many parents learned about for the first time at a March 5 school meeting, is one of several incidents that some black students say have left them feeling at times unwelcome and disrespected at Science Park.

Last year, reports of some students using racial slurs, including the N-word, prompted the school to hold a forum on racism and cultural insensitivity. Just this month, several students protested after a vice principal told black students to remove head wraps that some wear for religious reasons or to express pride in black culture, according to students and parents. (The administrator later apologized, according to a student.)

Sierra Etes, the school’s student-body president, told the board Tuesday that numerous students have described a “culturally insensitive climate” at the school, and that those concerns have been shared with the administration.

“A lot of students have expressed their dissent and their uncomfortability in the classroom,” said Etes, who is a senior, adding that the administration is well aware of students’ complaints. “These things are literally documented, so now their excuse can no longer be ignorance.”

The P.E. teacher, Matthew Swartz, did not respond to emails or text messages seeking comment. (Swartz was not identified by name during the Tuesday school board discussions.)

Some students have said they believe Swartz wore his costume as a joke, not a provocation. Swartz himself wrote on Facebook that “kids laughed, teachers laughed, a few people cried” in response to the getup. After the outfit drew complaints, Swartz apologized to the principal and a parent, according to a teachers union official and the parent who received the apology.

The principal, Kathleen Tierney, also did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Tierney told Swartz to remove the hat and mask on Halloween after some students complained, students said. But some parents and students said Swartz should have made a public apology and faced disciplinary action for the overtly political costume, which they said was improper for a teacher to wear in school.

Gaddy, along with board member Flohisha Hill, said in interviews that they believe the teacher should be removed from the classroom until an investigation has been completed.

“Every day that he’s there without an explanation, students think, ‘Oh, another teacher’s getting away with something,’” Gaddy said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, board member Leah Owens also called for a “deep investigation” into the culture and climate at Science Park. Dawn Haynes said that as a “hijab-wearing Muslim board member,” she was disturbed to learn about students being told to remove their head coverings. She also said it is unacceptable for faculty members to wear political attire in the classroom.

“Our schools are supposed to be a safe environment,” Haynes said. “Nobody’s political views should be spread onto the next because that’s your own opinion.”

Superintendent Roger León said during the meeting that he took the students’ reports “very seriously,” and that “things are underway” to address the issues they raised — though he did not specify which of their complaints he was referring to or what actions are being taken. A district spokeswoman did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking clarification.

Simmering concerns about cultural insensitivity at Science Park exploded into view at the March 5 meeting, where students described to parents and administrators Swartz’s Halloween costume, along with non-black students’ use of the N-word, according to Wilhelmina Holder, a community activist who was there.

“The things that were said that evening made me cry,” Holder told the board on Tuesday, imploring its members to take action. “The culture in that building must change. If the administration can’t change it, they must exit.”

The day after the meeting, a Science Park parent emailed photos of the costume to Principal Tierney, board members Owens and Gaddy, and Superintendent León. Calling the costume “insensitive and extremely racist,” the parent wrote that “we can not allow this behavior to continue,” according to the March 6 email, which Chalkbeat obtained.

It’s unclear whether any of the officials responded.

Halloween was not the first time that Swartz, who also coaches track, has offended some students. Etes said that when Swartz was previously her P.E. teacher, he referred to her hair as “unbe-weave-able,” a reference to hair extensions that she found inappropriate and offensive.

Alexandra Pensado, who graduated from Science Park in 2014, said in an email interview Wednesday that she had heard Swartz make the same “unbe-weave-able” remark when Swartz was her track coach. Pensado, who was dating an older student, also recalled Swartz telling her: “You’re going to get pregnant; that’s what happens.”

“I just felt really disrespected at the time,” Pensado said in an email, “because I knew the comments were inappropriate.”

On Tuesday, two community activists who are candidates in this year’s school board election, Yolanda Johnson and Maggie Freeman, met with Principal Tierney to discuss the costume and other issues at Science Park.

Freeman said she believes the administration is taking steps to address students’ concerns but still called for an outside investigation. Johnson said some students are eager for changes.

“Students are looking forward to teachers embracing them more,” she said, “and the school climate being way better than what it is.”