Planet Princeton

Complaint filed with civil rights commission alleges that suspensions disproportionately affect students of color and special needs in Princeton

The yearbook photo in question included two pieces of art that were deemed offensive.

A former Princeton High school student and her father have filed a complaint with the municipal civil rights commission claiming that the policies and practices of the Princeton Public Schools for suspensions disproportionately affect students of color and special needs students.

Jamaica Ponder, a 2017 graduate of Princeton High School, and her father, Rhinold Ponder, filed a complaint with the civil rights commission in December. Jamaica Ponder is the daughter, and Rhinold Ponder is the husband, of school board member Michele Tuck Ponder, a former mayor of Princeton Township who was elected to the board in November.

The complaint filed with the commission and obtained by Planet Princeton alleges that Jamaica Ponder was suspended and disciplined because of her race, gender and advocacy for racial justice and equity. The complaint also claims that throughout the suspension and appeal process, Jamaica Ponder and her parents were denied their due process rights under school policy and state law.

Jamaica Ponder was suspended last June for submitting a yearbook group picture that was deemed to contain offensive “explicitly racial” language and images in the background. The photo in question included two pieces of artwork in the background from her father’s art exhibit “The Rise and Fall of The N-Word.”  According to the complaint, Jamaica’s yearbook photo submission was not a suspendable offense under the student code of conduct. Sixteen students were involved in creating the photo but Jamaica, the only black person, was the only one disciplined in connection with the group photo, according to the complaint. Subsequent to the suspension, what may be considered a vulgar gesture by a non-black student was identified in the collage but the non-black student responsible for the gesture was not investigated or disciplined, according to the complaint. The complaint also alleges that other students who submitted offensive photos to the yearbook that were published were not black, were not suspended, and instead were allowed to apologize.

According to the complaint, Jamaica Ponder’s suspension was lifted after she agreed to complete a post-graduation “letter of reflection.” After she completed the letter, her suspension was rescinded after the fact.

The complaint alleges that the Princeton Public Schools district has historically used out-of-school suspensions to disproportionately discipline students of color.

“Jamaica has also written several articles bringing international attention to the racial inequality and injustice that permeates Princeton Public Schools. Her writings have encouraged the district to become more urgent and proactive in addressing these issues,” reads the complaint. “However, district administrators violated school policy and exploited the lack of formality and administrative procedures to suspend Jamaica and violate her due process rights. Similarly, the district has shown total disregard for her parents’ rights to due process in accordance with a school policy passed by the school board.”

The Ponders are seeking to abolish what they say are policies and practices that disparately impact students of color and special needs students. The complaint calls on the municipal civil rights commission, which was created by the Princeton Council in 2016, to take immediate community action.

“The PPS Board of Education and its administrators must be held to account for policies and
practices which remain in place endangering the rights of all students and parents, especially those of color and those who do not have the resources to overcome discriminatory treatment,” reads the complaint.

The Ponders have asked the civil rights commission to do eight things:

1.Investigate the Princeton Public School’s out-of-school suspension disciplinary practices and policies

2. Establish a liaison between the Princeton Civil Rights Commission and the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education to monitor the school district’s handling of disciplinary matters and compliance with board policies, state law and civil rights acts

3.Require the Princeton Board of Education and administrators to establish clear written administrative procedures that inform parents, in English and Spanish, of their due process rights and appellate procedures with specificity at the beginning of the disciplinary process

4. Oversee the establishment of a policy that requires administrators to specify in writing, prior to or at the time of discipline, the specific factual and legal basis for such discipline in plain and clear language

5. Collaborate with the Princeton Public Schools to establish disciplinary practices and procedures for out-of-school suspension as a measure of last resort and monitor the impact of discipline and suspensions on children of color and special needs students

6. Obtain data regarding discipline by race and disability in cooperation with the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education or through the New Jersey Open Records Act

7. Ensure the annual public publishing of discipline data on the school district website and in the local press, broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, and type of offense

8. Establish an advocate or ombudsman for students of color and special needs children within the district.

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane did not respond to a request for comment regarding the complaint.

The civil rights commission held its first meeting of the year earlier this month but members did not discuss specific cases. Tommy Parker, who was named chairman of the commission for 2018 at the meeting, said the commission has one complaint pending, and that both sides have agreed to mediation. Complaints go to a subcommittee of the commission to be informally resolved. According to commission leaders, if the parties involved in a dispute feel the commission has not addressed their concerns, the next step is mediation. If mediation does not resolve the issue, a complaint can be filed with the state’s civil rights commission.

It is unclear what jurisdiction the commission has over school issues. The ordinance establishing the commission is broad and vague. Civil rights advocates criticized it when the commission was formed, saying the commission lacked enforcement powers. Another twist on the school issue — three of the current members and Princeton Council liaison Tim Quinn are former school board members.

The commission members spent most of the meeting last week discussing school district issues. Former school board member Molly Chrein is the liaison to the school board. She said the school district also needs to appoint a liaison to the civil rights commission. She told the commissioners she spoke to a school board member the night before the meeting, and the person said the liaison to the commission should be an administrator and not a school board member, because administrators are more aware of what is going on in the district.

Commissioners also discussed: how the school district handles Martin Luther King Jr. Day;  the desire for the commission to follow up with school district officials on the district’s dialogues about race last year; changes to the social studies curriculum; lesson plans at the high school; and whether the district followed through with implementing the special lesson plans for the Princeton and Slavery Project. Some students and former students who were in the audience also claimed that Black History Month activities are not promoted or celebrated as much as the Asian student festival.  At the meeting, near the end of the discussion, Quinn said technically the commission has no authority over the schools.

The commission, a public body, met 14 times last year. An agenda for the last meeting was not posted on the civil rights commission’s web page before the meeting. On the website, only one agenda and two sets of minutes for 2017 were posted. Quinn said at the meeting that agendas and minutes were not posted on the website due to “a misunderstanding” between the secretary for the commission and the municipal clerk’s office.

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.

6 comments

  • What happened was egregious, and it seems constructive and appropriate for the Ponders to pursue this matter at arms length through the newly created Princeton Civil Rights Commission, instead of bumping it up to the Federal Office for Civil Rights. Although the Commission does not have direct enforcement powers, its members’ deep knowledge of school policy and legal procedure will hopefully allow them to fairly advise people with grievances like the Ponders, and to craft limited requests for public records that are not an undue burden for the District to provide. As for the student’s motives in describing this and previous incidents, I would say they are irrelevant if the facts reported were true.

  • This story is bizarre. Ms. Tuck Ponder was just elected to the school board and is in a position to help enact change in a positive, constructive manner. Why would her family then file a public complaint with a public commission that has no authority over the school system? It’s a way to stir up controversy rather than fix the system.

    And why has the Princeton town set up an appointed commission whose agenda appears to be second guessing the decisions made by the elected members of the board? This is a recipe for chaos.

  • “Jamaica has also written several articles bringing international attention to the racial inequality and injustice that permeates Princeton Public Schools.”

    Relentless self-promotion has become a trademark of this country.

  • Pardon my cynicism but as I have said multiple times, though what committees, commissions, boards do, in words sound commendable; actually, they suck.

  • To Planet Princeton: seems like it would be useful for you to obtain and publish here relevant school policies. Thx in advance.

  • This sounds like it has two goals: (1) To not allow the school administration to require students conduct themselves appropriately by letting outside groups control how disciplinary matters, in the schools, are handled and (2) Get more attention for Jamaica Ponder.

    I suspect the latter is the more important one.

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