Prior to suspending its flawed complaint process, the Princeton Civil Rights Commission was an effective institution in sustaining racism. Whether, after city council review, it is transformed into the champion and protector of civil rights it is supposed to be remains to be seen. Experience cautions us not to count on it.
In February, the civil rights commission rejected a complaint brought by me and my daughter on behalf of black, Latino and disabled students against the Princeton Public Schools District. The complaint challenged the district’s persistent discriminatory disciplinary practices. By submitting it to the civil rights commission, we sought the intervention of local institutional protection which was supposedly available to this community. Among the remedies requested was an investigation of school disciplinary practices, oversight of the development of new disciplinary policy and the establishment of an ombudsman in collaboration with the district.
The civil rights commission responded with a letter vetted only by self-anointed “leadership” of the commission. Among the Trumpian reasons for declining to advocate for the aggrieved population, the civil rights commission “leadership” decried that it could not provide a safe space for the accused school district because of press involvement. Additionally, the civil rights commission falsely claimed that it could do nothing more than provide mediation information because it did not have “special investigative, legal or judicial authority.”
The uproar caused by the civil rights commission’s handling of the complaint was not widely reported. However, it led to the resignation of disenchanted board members, the cancellation of meetings, town council review of the ordinance establishing civil rights commission powers, and tales of falsely reported resolutions of unresolved complaints.
Meanwhile, there has been practically no improvement in the racial inequity and environment in the school district. Although, the district’s use of suspensions has declined from 2013 to 2015, the proportion of black, Hispanic and mixed-race students suspended has increased. These students made up 23.9% of the student body. They accounted for 55% of those suspended in 2015.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a commission made up of so many former school board members to challenge racism in Princeton Public Schools and to protect aggrieved students. If it is unreasonable to expect the local institutions to fight racism, then it is past time to call in the state administrative and judicial apparatus to protect us.