Superintendent Steve Cochrane’s Remarks about Hate Incident at John Witherspoon Middle School

The message below was shared by Superintendent Steve Cochrane at the beginning of the Princeton Public School’s Board of Education meeting on November 14, 2017.  To read November 16 statement of Princeton government and religious leaders, click here.

Tonight, based on recent events affecting our middle school students, I feel compelled to begin our meeting with a call to action to our schools and to our community. Hate exists in our world, and as much as we strive to protect our children from it, they see it, they hear it, they feel it.  And so, yes, we want to protect our children from hate, but we also need to empower them to stand against it.

A little over a week ago, we learned that a Google spreadsheet, created by two of our teachers for an 8th grade science lab and made available to the entire 8th grade class, was vandalized with messages that were racist, anti-Semitic, and sexual in nature. We are grieved and we are angered by these messages of hate.

We are unsure if these messages were created by our students.  Our investigation suggests that one student at JW posted the spreadsheet to an online platform and thereby opened it to the world.  It was subsequently hacked with messages of hate, but those messages could have come from anywhere in the world and likely included numerous individuals.

We may never know who placed the hateful messages in the document, but we do know that our students watched it happen and, for whatever reason, struggled to report it to their parents, their teachers, their principal.

In many ways this struggle is not surprising.  Research would suggest that only 3% of students feel empowered to stand up to bullying behaviors and to call out messages of hurt and hate.

And yet, one would think that among our children, that percentage would be higher. Our 8th grade students had just come back from Washington DC where they toured the Holocaust Museum and where they actively reflected on which groups in our country are not represented by the monuments in our nation’s capital.  As a district, we’ve rewritten curriculum to provide our students with different perspectives and to celebrate broader and more nuanced narratives. We’ve looked at our literature to make sure it represents for our students different cultures, religions, and genders. Every year, JW holds its Unity Day to celebrate our differences and the values that connect us. Our staff are participating in workshops and trainings on racial literacy and equity. This year, we’ll be conducting an equity audit of culture and curriculum, which you’ll hear more about tonight.

But clearly it is not enough. We have to do better for our children. Hateful views and attitudes have become pervasive in our world. In the past year, the number of incidents involving hurtful comments and hateful speech have skyrocketed in schools across the country. The tone of national politics is combative. Every day, we’re seeing reports of discord and animosity in the media. We began our school year with the horrific scenes from Charlottesville. Hate and prejudice are looming large in our world, and as a community we need to help our kids stand up against them.

And so, this week, Principal Jason Burr will be meeting with 8th grade students in their science classes and talking to them about this latest incident.  He will encourage them to talk about their own feelings. He will ask them how this situation could have been handled differently.  He will solicit from them ideas for how they believe we can create a safe, inclusive, and respectful school community.

In addition, Mr. Burr has reached out to the Anti-Defamation League to ask for their help and to explore their peer leadership program entitled A World of Difference.  The program is designed to help young people become peer leaders who work with their classmates to create safe and inclusive school communities. Advocating for social justice issues is a lifelong process.  The World of Difference Institute helps students develops the skills and the values to respond to everything from put-downs to racially insensitive comments.

As a district, we will continue to work to instill in our students the values of respect and tolerance and advocacy for social justice. But we cannot do this work alone. As Principal Jason Burr wrote in his letter to 8th grade families this week, we all need to make sure we are upstanders rather than bystanders.

I’m calling on our entire community to take the incidents of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism that are in our world and in our local community seriously. I’m asking for each of us – parents, staff, students, community members – to take a stand against the injustices we see in our day-to-day lives and to model that stance for one another. I’m asking for each of us to call out the comments we hear that make us or others uncomfortable, to advocate for those around us who are vulnerable, and to stand against disrespectful messages and actions.  We can stop the hateful rhetoric and the disregard that we see spreading. We can create a culture that values and respects all people.

It is up to each of us and all of us.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  We can no longer be silent.

 

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3 Comments on “Superintendent Steve Cochrane’s Remarks about Hate Incident at John Witherspoon Middle School

  1. Is the school admiinstration aware of Penn Professor Howard Stevenson’s work with students and empowerment?

    • Yes. Not in Our Town brought Dr. Stevenson to Princeton to speak last February. At that time, we gave Superintendent Cochrane a copy of his book Racial Literacy. One PHS teacher attended one of his workshops in Philadelphia this summer.

  2. Pingback: Official Statement Condemning Recent Incident of Hate Speech | NIOT Princeton

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