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Medill freshman files discrimination complaint against Princeton Public Schools

Medill+freshman+Jamaica+Ponder.+Ponder+and+her+father+filed+a+discrimination+complaint+against+Princeton+Public+Schools+alleging+their+suspension+practices+are+racially+biased.
Medill freshman Jamaica Ponder. Ponder and her father filed a discrimination complaint against Princeton Public Schools alleging their suspension practices are racially biased.

Medill freshman Jamaica Ponder. Ponder and her father filed a discrimination complaint against Princeton Public Schools alleging their suspension practices are racially biased.

Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Medill freshman Jamaica Ponder. Ponder and her father filed a discrimination complaint against Princeton Public Schools alleging their suspension practices are racially biased.

Maddie Burakoff, Campus Editor

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Growing up in the public school system in Princeton, New Jersey, Jamaica Ponder said she often saw issues of racial inequity, even in a town that largely professed itself to be liberal.

“It’s really difficult to make that a problem to put on the table because everyone is so educated,” the Medill freshman said. “We have Princeton (University) right there, and so you talk to these parents who have x amount of degrees, and they’re like, ‘Well of course we’re not racist. We’re far too smart to be racist.’”

Recently, Ponder and her father filed a discrimination complaint against Princeton Public Schools in response to a school suspension system which they see as racially biased.

During her senior year at Princeton High School, Ponder faced a one-day suspension because of her senior collage photo in the school’s yearbook, which features her and a group of friends in her basement. The part of the photo that caused the retaliation, she said, was the backdrop — behind the 17 students hung works of art created by Jamaica’s father, Rhinold Ponder.

Rhinold Ponder said the works in the photo are part of an exhibition on race and the N-word. One painting has the phrase “N—– Rich,” and another depicts a lynching of three famous figures. The paintings had been hanging in the family’s house for years, and often served as a “conversation piece” for Jamaica’s friends, Rhinold Ponder said.

So when Jamaica Ponder was called into the principal’s office to discuss her yearbook collage, she said she was surprised. The fact that the word is in the painting “doesn’t even register” with her anymore, she said, and the paintings were largely obscured by the students in the photo.

Administrators still issued Jamaica Ponder a one-day suspension. In a statement from the Princeton Board of Education — on which Jamaica Ponder’s mother currently serves — the board said her photo contained “what could reasonably be interpreted as offensive and profane statements and/or imagery.”

On a personal level, Jamaica Ponder said the suspension was “not a big deal.” She was not new to conflicts with the district — throughout her high school career, she had been calling out perceived issues in both administrators and fellow students through her online publication, Multi Mag.

And though she had to alert Northwestern, she was eventually able to get the suspension removed from her record after submitting a reflection about the experience, she said.

The real concern, she said, was that her suspension was reflective of wider racial issues in the school district. Jamaica and Rhinold Ponder filed a complaint with the recently formed Princeton Civil Rights Commission stating Jamaica Ponder was suspended on the basis of “her race, gender and advocacy for racial justice and equity.” The complaint also alleges that Princeton High School has a history of issuing out-of-school suspensions “disproportionately” to students of color and disabled students.

“Although we were vindicated, we don’t believe in leaving others behind,” Rhinold Ponder said. “We believe in leaving a system behind that is better for everyone.”

As one of about 11 black students in a class of about 350, Jamaica Ponder said she saw many of her fellow students of color receiving fewer opportunities and harsher disciplinary measures than their white peers.

Though the Ponders had the resources to help their daughter “benefit from the system,” Rhinold Ponder said the public schools generally have perpetuated a strong racial divide ever since they were integrated.

Superintendent Steve Cochrane did not respond to a request for comment.

In its statement, the Board said it understood the concerns of racial disparity “from a broad perspective as to discipline in school settings” but did not believe “race played a factor in this decision (or that the District disciplined students of color differently than other students for similar offenses).”

The Civil Rights Commission eventually decided it would not pursue the complaint. In an email sent Feb. 1, the commission said the publicity around the complaint’s filing “undermined the commission’s ideal of facilitating a (dialogue) through the means of conflict resolution” and could have a “chilling effect” on others who may now fear their concerns would similarly be presented in the media before a dialogue could occur in a “safe space.”

Despite the commission’s dismissal, Rhinold Ponder said he plans to continue putting pressure on the district to address racial inequity in “more than a cosmetic way.”

As a result of recent activism — including her own — Jamaica Ponder said she thinks the district is taking some steps, but hasn’t fully committed to implementing real changes. She said she wants the complaint and the publicity surrounding it to compel the district to make further moves toward equity.

“I hope … there’s more transparency … (and) that everyone is just treated equally,” Jamaica Ponder said. “It’s just really frustrating when you watch the people you grew up with get specifically targeted and not given the same opportunities, and you know exactly why.”

Email: madelineburakoff2020@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @madsburk

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