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.”