The head of the Princeton Public Schools has issued a statement about a Snapchat post by a high school student that included a racial slur about classmates on a bus.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said the district is investigating the incident involving a Princeton High School student who posted a selfie to Snapchat that was widely shared Tuesday by students and parents who were outraged over the offensive caption for the post that read “I’m on the bus with a bunch of n—— help.”
“We want to make clear that the student’s statement was unacceptable,” Cochrane wrote in a letter that went out to parents, student and staff in the district. “We are investigating the incident, and we understand the anger, sadness, frustration, and even fear the use of the word has created in our community.”
Princeton High School senior Jamaica Ponder also wrote a blog post about the Snap called “Back of the Bus” for the website Multi Magazine.
Ponder is the same student who wrote last year about students at Princeton High School playing a drinking game called Jew Nazi beer pong. She wrote Tuesday that the social media post was hurtful to black students even though they are accustomed to bigotry, and that it was astonishing to see a peer “shaken by the presence of black people that she had to send out an SOS to her friends.”
“Not only the fact that she’s calling us n——, that’s old news — and not that she felt comfortable posting it on social media — also old news — but the fact that she genuinely felt displeasure in the utter presence of black kids. That’s terrifying to me,” Ponder wrote. “To see that there are people, my peers who can’t stand me, or people who look like me, purely because we’re black, scares the living daylights out of me.”
The full text of Cochrane’s letter:
Dear parents, students, and staff,
As some in our community may have already seen, a Snapchat photo recently emerged in which a Princeton High School student used the N-word in reference to her classmates. We want to make clear that the student’s statement was unacceptable. We are investigating the incident, and we understand the anger, sadness, frustration, and even fear the use of the word has created in our community.
We also understand that the use of the word points to the larger reality of racism within our world. As an individual and as a superintendent, I often imagine a world beyond racism – a world in which all people move freely and without fear; a world in which levels of education and income are accessible to all; a world in which the ideas, contributions, and culture of each individual are celebrated.
But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world in which we are regularly exposed to explicit and implicit biases. The news is filled with incidents and commentary regarding cultural difference and tensions. The conversation and the conflict are all around us.
Our students want and need to be a part of that conversation and to make sense of that conflict. I believe schools have a responsibility to give them a safe space to do that. More importantly, I believe schools have a responsibility to lead the conversations – and the actions – to propel our world to a place beyond racism.
But how? How can we possibly help our students and our society move beyond racism? The answer I cling to: Courage. Humility. Hope.
As educators, we have to have the courage to wade into conversations about race with our colleagues and our students even when we are afraid we might misstep and offend someone else or embarrass ourselves. We have to have the courage to look honestly at our curricula and in some cases radically revise it to reflect cultural balance. We have to have the courage to pose the questions to our students that challenge their world view – and ours.
That courage is already being demonstrated. Last month, on the staff development day, teachers from many of our schools explored racial and gender-based stereotypes as part of our districtís stated goal of enhancing racial literacy and cultural awareness. Last week, I attended the third Mercer County Day of Dialogue. I witnessed students and staff from 17 high schools, including PHS, talking openly about the “unspeakables” in their schools – the issues of racial discrimination that affect them in their daily lives – and how they could be eradicated. Today, I was invited to meet with the social studies teachers at PHS. They, and others at our high school, have already engaged their students in conversations about the use of the N-word, and will continue to do so. I applaud their courage.
Humility. As individuals and as institutions, we have to be humble enough to recognize that we all have internalized beliefs about race, we all harbor unconscious prejudices, we all have made mistakes, and that none of us hold all the answers. All of our perspectives are necessarily incomplete without those of others.
Humility means recognizing that we cannot do this work alone. I am encouraged by the conversations about racial literacy that are happening in the broader Princeton community, including through the work of Not in Our Town, the Princeton Public Library, Princeton University, and the student-founded organization, Princeton CHOOSE, which uses a collection of personal stories as entry points for conversations about race and diversity.
Hope. I still get chills when I hear the words, “I have a dream that someday my children will be judged not be the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That dream gives me hope. Our own students give me hope.
Our students care deeply about issues of social justice and are committed to fighting cultural complacency, racism, and biases. Their vision and their action should give us all hope that the challenges of today’s world do not have to be the challenges of tomorrow’s.
Racism is not something we are born with. It is something we learn. It invades our psyche, sometimes violently, sometimes slowly and subtly.
But if it can be learned, it can be unlearned. There is no more important work we can do, no more important lessons we can teach than empathy for others and respect for our world’s diversity of races, religions, and cultures.
We have a long road ahead of us. There will be difficulties along the way. We will face them honestly. We will face them together. We will face them with hope.