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BERKELEY, NJ — Students, parents and educators of all races came to demand action from the Central Regional school board and administration to address racism they say is permeating the culture at the middle school and high school.
The energy at Thursday night’s board meeting was intense as many students spoke out against racist social media posts by board member Heather Koenig and similar issues with board member Merissa Borawski.
The two, who were elected to the board on the same slate in November, were absent from the meeting. Central Regional Superintendent Tom Parlapanides said the two were taking a planned vacation.
The packed room came on the heels of complaints about Koenig’s posts that were lodged by teachers and members of the community at the March 7 board meeting. Read More: Community Decries Racist Posts By Central School Board Member
Parker Miller, a junior at Central Regional, shared a prepared speech insisting that changes need to be made at the school, after she was targeted with racial slurs for urging students to come speak at the meeting by sharing a racist social media post by another student.
Miller said she was given an out-of-school suspension. The student who made the racist post, a selfie of the student with a sticker of a white fist reading “WHITE LIVES MATTER” and a caption saying “Forge Gloydd,” was suspended for half a day and returned the next day.
The day she returned, a student sitting next to her in class posted a picture of her to Snapchat with the caption “f–k n—” with the hard r, she said.
“Tonight I am not standing in front of you all asking for appeasement or atonement,” Miller said. “I along with other countless peers are looking for change and action now.”
Miller said she wanted to get the ball rolling for change. Some of her ideas for a course of action were encouraging the newly formed POC Student Union, forming a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, a plan to hire more Black teachers and a formal apology from the board members in question.
Her speech received a standing ovation, and many students and parents came forth to share similar negative experiences they have had at the school.
Students and parents also said Miller’s experiences were not an isolated incident, but rather an entire culture that needs to be changed.
Ebony Rivera, a mother of a Central Regional student who is a teacher in Lakewood, said her son dealt with microaggressions, including comments made to him saying he was acting like he had “a noose around his neck,” which was met with a shocked response from the audience.
“In the 21st century, it is completely unacceptable,” Rivera said. She said there needs to be diversity training for the staff.
Several Black students shared their experiences as well. One said that their class president said that racism does not exist in the school. Another said she was made to pretend to pick cotton during class in Black History Month in elementary school. One said she was called the n-word at age 9. “It’s tiring, every single day,” a student said. Many others shared similar experiences.
Joeshun Miller, mother of Parker Miller, said she was tired of Black students not feeling safe in their school and wanted a solution.
She called the social media postings targeting her daughter “some of the most vile Snapchat posts.”
The posts, which Joeshun Miller presented at the meeting and were obtained by Patch, ranged from September 2021 until now. In a reply to the “WHITE LIVES MATTER” post, the student said “it’s not racist, it’s funny.” Another post from the same student read “if you get offended by someone singing n— in a song and thinking it’s racist you’re a f—ing p—y.” Yet another said “Teens used to lie about their age to get into the war, yall p— now get offended when heads say f—t, r——d, or n— like stfu” with a laughing and crying emoji. On the bottom it read “Facts this Generation is so sensitive.”
“We gotta show up for these kids,” Joeshun Miller said. “And I’m glad they can actually show up for themselves as well.”
Parlapanides insisted that actions of the two members don’t reflect the board, to which one audience member reacted with a cry of “Then do something about it!” He again asked for people to not judge the entire board for one or two bad members. The audience was reminded that the board cannot remove an elected member. An ethics complaint must be filed for action to be taken.
Parlapanides also shared actions the board is taking. The first meeting of a newly formed equity committee was held Thursday morning, and he said more information will be coming as the group is developed further. The board also passed a new social media policy for members, prohibiting them from publicly posting comments that are detrimental to the Central Regional community or comments that violate the School Ethics Act.
During the meeting, community members said they were concerned those steps were not enough. Board members said the community could act by potentially voting to recall the members after their first year was up, and repeatedly encouraged everyone to vote in November, when more board seats would be up for election. Many community members also urged everyone in attendance to return to each school board meeting with the same energy.
The emotions were high, but the students were proud of the actions they were taking to make real change in the school. Parker Miller said she knew things wouldn’t be easy for her going forward, but she was proud nonetheless.
“I know I have a target on my back now,” she said. “But I don’t care.”
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