Planet Princeton

Black student at Princeton High School suspended because of yearbook photo

Rhinold Ponder’s painting “Strange Fruit: High Tech Lynching” hangs on a wall in the family’s home. It was in the background in the upper left corner of a photo in the school yearbook that his daughter submitted for publication.

Jamaica Ponder, the high school senior who has chronicled racist incidents in Princeton over the last year on her blog, has been suspended because of a photo she submitted to the yearbook that was then published.

Ponder was suspended for using “explicitly racial language,” in her senior collage photo. The photo in question included two pieces of artwork in the background from her father’s art exhibit “The Rise and Fail of The N-Word.”

Rhinold Ponder, her father, said when the paintings are not being exhibited, they hang on the family room wall. The purpose of the imagery is to promote racial literacy and dialogue, he said. “It’s difficult in our society to talk about race, and everyone is so stifled by a word,” he said, noting that teens who visit the Ponder home often ask about the art, which leads to thought-provoking discussions about race.

One painting called “Strange Fruit: High Tech Lynching” shows Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas hanging from trees with televisions around their heads across from an image of a lynching victim. A second painting is the words “NIGGER RICH,” in dark acrylic paint and chopped up dollar bills. In the photo submitted for the yearbook, both pieces of art work are partially blocked by students who are standing in front of them. It is hard to make out the N-word by looking at the photo. “You would have had to have been in our family room or have seen the exhibit to know what was in the paintings,” he said.

The yearbooks were distributed last week. Ponder was called into the principal’s office on Thursday because of the yearbook photo and was told Friday that she was suspended for a day. In her blog post about the photo, she said the inclusion of her dad’s art was an oversight and the photo was meant to be innocent and apolitical. The family is so used to having the art work hang in the family room that it was an oversight, and the paintings were not fully visible.

The yearbook photo:

“I then think of the fact that nigger was in my senior collage and not someone else’s. I wonder what the repercussions would be for a white or Hispanic or Asian kid if they had made the same oversight as myself, if they would be treated differently for the same infractions due to their complexion. I wonder if that’s even legal,” Ponder wrote in her first blog post about the photo. “The n-word is in our yearbook, but it’s coming from a black kid so that makes it okay, right? I’m well aware of the historical connotations of the word and why I’m in a position to throw it around freely if I so desire. Typically, I choose not to but only because I am equally as aware of the myriad of different, better words to use in place of it.”

The Ponders say they were told the principal at the high school, Gary Snyder, suspended Jamaica Ponder because he though the imagery and words in the photo were offensive. The Ponders question whether Snyder could suspend her at his discretion,whether the proper process was followed when suspending her, and whether she received due process. They plan to appeal the one-day suspension, take the issue to the town’s civil rights commission for review, and do anything else necessary to make sure something like this doesn’t happen to another student in Princeton, Rhinold Ponder said.

Some students are considering staging at protest in the principal’s office to object to the suspension, and the ACLU has been made aware of the incident.

“Evidently I had used ‘explicitly racial language,’ in my senior collage. I had disrupted a community environment which was focused on learning and that disciplinary action had to be taken. It was explained to me that I was not to be in school on Monday. I was asked if I had any questions. The show went on,” Ponder wrote about her suspension. “I sat silently for several moments as I rolled my sentencing around my brain. I considered the fact that they just suspended a black kid for allegedly using the N word. I recalled my collage, the photo which hosts 16 of my friends and 5 out-of-focus hanging men, 1 full G, half of an R, and an I which may or may not be an H. I wondered where they explicitly saw the word “nigger,” when I understood that they didn’t; that there is no nigger in the yearbook; that the only nigger in that photo is me; that she had said too much, disrupted the show and that she had to be silenced.”

Ponder said she laughed out loud when she was told she was suspended. “I wondered what they believed was going to happen next. I had made myself notorious by refusing to go quietly- they had to be aware that I wouldn’t swallow an unjust suspension with a hiccup and a smile,” she wrote.

Ponder has blogged about a few racist incidents involving high school and middle school students over the past year. She first posted about high school students playing Jew Nazi beer pong last spring. More recently she shared a Snapchat post by a student who complained about having to ride the school bus with blacks. The Snapchat post included the n-word. Ponder also wrote a post about middle school students who were caught consuming marijuana brownies at a private home. When asked who gave them the brownies,  students falsely blamed a black student, saying everyone would believe them because the student was black.

Jamaica’s parents have been called into the principal’s office four times because of complaints about bullying when Jamaica blogged about Jew Nazi beer pong and other racist incidents, Rhinold Ponder said. The family’s home has been egged several times since the beer pong incident, and Jamaica has been called “bitch” and other names in the hallways at high school because of her blog posts about racism, he said.

Rhinold Ponder said he believes his daughter is being punished because she has exposed racism in the Princeton schools. The one-day suspension is not a form of restorative justice and is meant to silence her and stop her exposing such incidents, he said. The Ponders believe the district has been looking for ways Jamaica ever since she wrote about the Jew Nazi beer pong incident.

“The suspension has very little to do with a yearbook picture,” Rhinold Ponder said. “It has everything to do with retaliating against Jamaica for speaking out about racism in the school. It is meant to be punitive and to make her shut up.”

He said a one-day suspension is not going to hurt his daughter. It’s more like a day off to her. But the family will fight the suspension because it is unjust, he said.

Snyder sent an email to parents about the yearbook collages and today. Ponder was one of a few seniors who were disciplined because of the collage photos they submitted, he wrote.

“Princeton High School values and strives to instill in our students compassion, respect, equity, and unity. This year’s Princeton High School yearbook was designed to celebrate those ideals, but unfortunately, there were a few senior collages that undermined that goal with insensitive, offensive, and provocative words and symbols of racial bias, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. Both faculty and students on the yearbook staff have acknowledged shortcomings in their editorial review process that enabled the inappropriate content to slip through and have apologized for unknowingly publishing such content. Those students who submitted the inappropriate collages are responsible for their actions, and those actions are being addressed within the parameters of school discipline,” Snyder wrote.

“A high school yearbook is a keepsake for all students and for the entire school community. The words and symbols that were used in the yearbook are neither appropriate or acceptable. While we encourage our students to have thoughtful dialogues and challenging academic discussions within safe spaces and with established ground rules, the use of historically offensive words and symbols in a yearbook crosses the boundaries of productive dialogue and into the realm of offensive speech that is not permissible within the domains of our school community,” Snyder wrote. “As the Principal of Princeton High School, I want to state that we unequivocally oppose the use of offensive language and symbols. I also want to state, however, that I will defend and protect the privacy of the individuals involved. We all, including the school, parents, community members, and media, have a responsibility to protect our young people and create an environment where students can truly learn from their mistakes rather than be permanently condemned for them.”

Snyder said community members, including alumni, are troubled by the various reports of student conduct. “I am equally upset and concerned, and yet I also have the privilege of seeing the courageous and positive efforts of students and faculty each day who are working tirelessly to teach, learn, and promote civility and understanding that is so very much needed in our town and nation. Princeton High School has a long tradition of student expression and activism to promote ideas from all perspectives. We must continue to have and promote the exchange of ideas that challenges the status quo, and we must do so with kindness, warmth, and open minds. We must do so in ways that promote positive dialogue instead of stifling discussion or increasing divisiveness through hurtful messages, words, and symbols. he wrote. “We all have a stake and a responsibility to ourselves, families, and communities to continue to work toward a greater degree of harmony in our world.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Ellen

    See today’s New York Times: “A Noose at the Smithsonian Brings History Back to Life,” By LONNIE G. BUNCH III, JUNE 23, 2017. Brava, Jamaica.

  • FixYourselfFirst

    Parents have the right to appeal a suspension and more parents should do so. Especially how children continue to be treated like manufactured humans who must meet quality checks.

    There are times when parents feel they have to abide by the the punishments doled out by the school… but if ever something just doesn’t seem just about a suspension, please support your child and seek an appeal.

    Children should feel they have the support of their parents and feel understood during complex situations.

  • J Green

    It was Ms Ponder ‘s hypothetical. Read the article

  • Kenneth Verbeyst

    they also suspended a white kid I believe for his submission that was deemed innappropriate. She was suspended because it was her work not because she was in it. I agree no one should be suspended out of school for spreading racist messages intentional or “accidental”. Its far better to bring those children into school counseling to discuss what they did and understand how it was taken. As to your follow up comment you couldnt be more mistaken, not only a woman I consider my second mother was african american, her husband was “pop” to me.

  • Aaron King

    pictures were an oversight. whats the problem? sure, it might be offensive to someone who took the trouble to go to the house and research what was on the pictures (you cant tell form the photo!), so fine, if it might be offensive, then pull the photo from the YB, problem solved, no suspension required.

  • Aaron King

    J:

    if you dont have a real argument, just make up a hypothetical and state a conclusion based on your fantasy, right?

  • Aaron King

    so he could not just tell her the photo couldn’t be in the yearbook? he had to suspend her? are you serious?

  • Aaron King

    “its about consistency”

    so why didnt they suspend all of the students in that picture. why suspend just the only black kid?

    also, why not just tell her it cant be in the yearbook and be done?

    your entire rant is just a cover for your hatred and fear of black people. grow up.

  • Aaron King

    what a shame that cowards like you are emboldened by the election of trump to spout your racist shaming and libel.

  • Aaron King

    how is this her “stunt”? the school is making a big deal out of it, not her. all they had to do was pull the picture. instead they suspend her. she didnt even realize the picture was in the background.

  • Aaron King

    ah yes, the time-honored tradition of weak-kneed cowards making up hypotheticals to argue against.

    why dont you just admit you are afraid of young black girls and move on?

    the school didnt even try to simply tell her that they couldnt put the picture in the yearbook. that was obviously the first thing to do. your response is some nonsensical hypothetical.

  • wendy trauth

    If Pablo Picasso’s daughter had taken her yearbook collage photo with her father’s ”Guernica” painting showing in the background would she have been suspended? These are paintings that have hung in a gallery open to the public.
    The principal is a long winded motormouth and ignorant of the cultural value of art. I hope Jamaica gets her suspension overturned and the high school gets a new and more culturally sophisticated principal.

  • Yahurmeh

    Then the administration would have been called racist (since the bar is so low now) So, their hands were tied.

  • Jessica

    #1 – Why weren’t these ‘submissions’ reviewed before publication?
    #2 – It took me magnifying the screen by 200% before I even saw that it was supposed to be on the black painting in the middle of the picture.

    For all of you who keep saying “she needs to take responsibility” – she did nothing wrong. There was ARTWORK in the background of a picture she submitted. If they felt it had improper ANYTHING, they should have given it back to her and clearly stated what the issue was and what was not allowed. You cannot punish someone for crossing boundaries that are not clearly defined, nor given at all.

  • jim james

    Et tu, Brute?

    Me, on the other hand, thinks Jamaica Ponder a wonderful messenger.

  • Coinspring

    Why the double-standard? No special rules, no special laws. Equal protection. What is wrong with that?

  • Coinspring

    #LetItGo

  • Tom Rooney

    As one of the few Irredeemable Deplorables around Princeton it amazes me that there is so much reported racism. I see hundreds of “Hate has no home here” and “No matter where you are from” signs, but under the surface you all appear to be a bunch of racists and the signs are for show. Or could this be yet another attention seeking publicity stunt by an attention starved teenager, whose parents don’t have enough wit to teach right from wrong?

  • Simon

    People in Princeton have so much time on their hands. The idol rich, as in 1%ers. This must be the most hypocritical town on earth.

  • cloudy2

    Obviously, it is not the students’ year book, but a publication of the administrators.Parents will see it, people will freak out.

    Strange Fruit, indeed.

  • Dennis

    What a shame, with all the talented and accomplished students at Princeton High, this individual has the spotlight during the graduation season. It is lunacy that this individual has somehow become the voice of the African-American community for the high school. Let them move their act on to the university.

  • Keith Moulton

    I am deeply disappointed in Mr. Snyder and aghast that any student would be suspended for submitting a photo of questionable taste to a student publication. While I do not find the image to be offensive, if there was a question about it, that was solely for the editors to determine.

  • Emma Kim

    This kid was attempting to make a political statement about the climate of PHS. He compared PHS students to the early Nazis of the 1933 Nuremburg march in order to demonstrate that rather than equity and understanding, bigotry, racial apathy, and superiority-complexes are fostered at PHS.

  • Sophie Bailly Soulier

    I fully agree that kids names should not be released, and this was not my point, they are young and should be protected for their mistakes…Jamaica is an activist and is very smart of stating her point of view on her blog. I was surprised that nothing was said about the 2 other pages. Satisfied to read the new article published today.

  • Marushka

    Sad, do as I say not as I do Jamaica. The n word should never be used by anyone.

  • CTB

    Suspension details are not made public by schools. I don’t think they are allowed to release such info. See the second to last paragraph of this article. Keep in mind that some of the students involved may still be under 18 years old. The reason the media is reporting on Jamaica Ponder’s suspension is because she talked about it in her public blog as did her father on social media. The person who included a historic image of nazis in the yearbook was also suspended. I’m not sure about the Kim Jong Un image.

  • Liz Winslow

    If you’d like to elevate the discourse I’d be happy to engage.

  • Kenneth Verbeyst

    its about consistency. Ms ponder is given no free pass to use offensive symbols or language merely because of her color or religion. To treat her differently??? That would be racist! As to suspension, many students have been suspended for saying or doing some pretty stupid stuff. A better option may be in school group suspension with a counselor. The photos of lynchings are absolutely disturbing; so are photos of WWII death camps in Japan and Auschwitz. For that matter, so are pictures or partial birth abortions and the list goes on. The question is should we ban words that offend us? I can tell you that TV has certainly changed over the last 40 years. Common decency like common sense is not that common it seems.

  • Sophie Bailly Soulier

    No publicity was done about it. How does it come that the journalist only reports one case. I have kids at PHS Lopez78, and, yes indeed I am badly informed since nothing was clearly said about the whole story! This is exactly my point.

  • J Green

    Waaaah. We’re also embarrassed for you.

  • Lopez78

    Many of the points JP raises I agree with. My issue with her is that she makes everything about herself. In her blog post she even refers to her self in the 3rd person a few times. She is not the only person who is allowed to have an opinion on race issues at PHS and beyond.
    BTW: There were other students suspended because of yearbook content, not just JP.

  • J Green

    The Ponders posed that hypothetical, not me. If you want to believe the reaction would be as muted for a white student displaying similar imagery then you have spent too much time in the liberal echo chamber. Good luck in the real world.

  • Lopez78

    That person WAS also suspended. So many people who are not actually in PHS posting as if they are all knowing.

  • PrettySmart1

    So?

  • PrettySmart1

    Jamaica Ponder’s previous blogging about racist incidents struck me as brave, but her inability to accept any responsibility for this incident reflects a disappointing lack of maturity.

  • BlueBlazer

    If you support Jamaica Ponder, and disagree with Principal Snyder’s actions, it would be worthwhile to email, copying Superintendent Cochrane, or call his office and *politely* state your views. I think it’s very disheartening to see Snyder take these actions, especially given how poorly he handled the Alison Macrina incident.

  • BubbyNX

    You all need to stop being selfish about this and throwing flame at Snyder and look from his point of view. This situation was going to become controversial no matter what, and if Snyder had chosen not to take action, there would be outlash saying she SHOULD be suspended. So Snyder is in a hole both ways. Stop blaming Snyder and stop being selfish about this.

  • That Resident Again

    I don’t think so. If the white student in your example had spent the last few years highlighting and questioning racism and demanding action and attention, I don’t think anyone would be outraged at the image in his/her yearbook collage. I think people would see it as a continuation of a tightly held ideal. Like Liz Winslow said in comments on the last article on the subject, what we are looking at here is a talent that far surpasses most adults in the room. Jamaica could not have put a finer point on her final days at PHS. And NOW, we will never forget. Drop the mic, JP out.

  • Liz Winslow

    But a white student didn’t . This was clearly AA art from an AA POV.

  • Liz Winslow

    Revolting! What is the principal of PHS up to that he doesn’t let an autistic student walk at graduation and suspends a critical voice… for art you’d need a microscope to see, no less. I’m embarrassed for Princeton.

  • Sophie Bailly Soulier

    What about the nazi page in the yearbook? I am much more concerned about such kind of ideology, not the first time at PHS that some kids “play” with the dangerous symbols (cf the beer pong jew vs nazi episode). Get the author suspended too?

  • John Heilner

    This suspension is ridiculous. Jamaica Ponder has done more to expose racism in our schools, get people talking about it, and the school administration to do something about it through education and outreach – although more needs to be done – than anyone in the last 50 years.

    When Mr. Snyder says the “yearbook is a keepsake,” he’s right. Ms. Ponder’s photo will be a welcome reminder that all was not well during their time in our school system. Hopefully it will motivate them to do all they can as they go forward in life to work for social justice, and ensure that the bigotry of a few of their schoolmates is not replicated in their communities – wherever life takes them.

  • Nat Bottigheimer

    I will ditto Robert Dana’s questions and add that it is not Jamaica Ponder’s contribution to the yearbook that is offensive and embarassing to Princeton, but the suspension.

  • Robert Dana

    Did the yearbook editors get suspended? Was the faculty advisor disciplined?

  • Lopez78

    Does the yearbook not have student staff as well as a faculty advisor who edit it before publication? Looks like someone dropped the ball.

  • J Green

    if a white student had the same words and images in their yearbook post it would be an outrage

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