Urban News Staff Reports

Black parents in the South Orange-Maplewood School District are claiming a victory after a lawsuit over the district’s segregation and discrimination practices is settled making way for long overdue changes.

The Black Parents Workshop, Inc., (BPW) announced this week the settlement of its federal lawsuit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District over the treatment of Black students in the New Jersey school district. The settlement culminates six years of advocacy by the Black Parents Workshop to call attention to the degree Black students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District are marginalized and the unlawful segregation of the district’s K-5 elementary schools.

“This is a historic victory for Black students and families in the communities of South Orange and Maplewood, said BPW Legal and Policy Committee chairman Walter Fields. “It is one of the rare instances in the nation when the grievances of Black students have been litigated and resolved in a manner that addresses patterns and practices that have undermined Black students’ success. However, it should not have taken a lawsuit for this school district to agree to the measures in this settlement.”

BPW filed its lawsuit in advance of the Latino Action Network v. New Jersey lawsuit that challenges statewide public-school segregation in the state. Settlement discussions in that lawsuit have broken down, leaving the matter of public-school segregation ripe for challenges at the district level.

The settlement agreement includes monitoring of the South Orange-Maplewood School District by retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, Jr., counsel to the law firm Brown & Connery, LLP. Justice Wallace will monitor the district’s integration plan and programs implemented to support Black students’ success.

“I am extremely gratified that we were able to resolve this matter for the benefit of the District’s Black children,” said BPW’s Legal Counsel Robert L. Tarver, Jr. “The settlement is, I believe, landmark in its scope and represents what can be accomplished through strategic advocacy and cooperative action.”

Founded in 2014 after the experience of a South Orange-Maplewood School District Black student Jordan Fields, BPW filed a complaint against the district with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Jordan had been denied entry into advanced-level mathematics courses despite having met all the existing criteria at the time for inclusion. Following the settlement of that complaint, Jordan’s father, Walter Fields, joined a small group of Black parents and launched BPW.

The group filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the district in U.S. District Court in the District of New Jersey. The lawsuit alleged Black students’ lack of access to advanced level courses in Columbia High School, racial disparities in student discipline in the district’s schools, the segregation of the district’s K-5 elementary schools as a violation of federal and state law, the lack of supports for Black students seeking to enroll in advanced-level courses, the failure to fully implement the state-mandated Amistad Black history curriculum and the lack of transparency in publicly reporting instances of student discipline and the racial composition of classes. The lawsuit also included several individual plaintiffs, who in their specific cases, had mistreatment in the district.

“As a homeowner, parent of Black children in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and attorney, I view this settlement agreement as an opportunity for the school district to engage in an honest, open and transparent relationship with Black families in the communities of South Orange and Maplewood,” said BPW Chairman Jame H. Davis III. “When you look at the declining numbers of Black families in our two towns and how our towns have become noticeably White and homogeneous in recent years, no one can deny that the status of our public schools is the cause of the re-segregation of our community. Perhaps by rehabilitating our public-school district we can once again be the type of community that is attractive to Black families.”

In a published statement, South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent Ronald G. Taylor said the district is looking to move forward and bring everyone together.

“We welcome the opportunity to put this litigation behind us and move forward together as a district and community, working to live our creed of service and to truly embody our mission to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions and to collectively create a better future,” he said.

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