Five years ago the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District made the New York Times for a rift between white and Asian-American parents after Superintendent David Aderhold expressed concerns that “students were overburdened and stressed out, juggling too much work and too many demands.” While the white parents largely agreed, the East Asian parents largely didn’t. One said, “what is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future.”
Five years later West Windsor-Plainsboro is facing another rift with different demographics. A South Asian student at one of the district’s two high schools posted three videos on TikTok and Instagram. One showed a student comparing black men to chimpanzees; another portrayed black women auctioned off as slaves. In the third he claims “a group of 15 black men does not violate rules against groups of 10 people gathering,” apparently referencing the 3/5ths compromise, in which 3 out of every 5 slaves were counted toward a state’s population.” (The videos have been taken down.)
The West Windsor-Plainsboro school community is divided not by student stress but by blatant racism that, according to several parents who contacted me, has been a feature of the district for too long. They regard Superintendent Aderhold’s reaction to the incident — two letters to the community and formal comments at the recent school meeting — as inadequate.
One parent told me the videos “underscore the experience of black students in this district.” Another told me, “what that high school student did isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem.
The section of the first Aderhold letter that parents found offensive was this:
To our West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District and our West Windsor and Plainsboro communities, we must continue to uphold our shared values of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. We are appreciative to all that sent messages alerting the school district of the posted comments and applaud you for standing up for those values. As a community, we have a responsibility to monitor and support these shared values. We also have a responsibility to one another to forgive wrongdoing and allow individuals the opportunity to grow from mistakes. Honoring the social emotional learning and growth of individuals, which is a hallmark of our district, also means recognizing that errors in judgment will be made. While we do not condone the posting or the message, we will never condemn the growth potential inside each of our students. Let this misguided incident be one that unites us as a school community.
This response was not warmly received. Parents told me that comparing a black high school student to a chimpanzee is not a “forgivable offense,” nor can it be relegated to “an opportunity to grow from mistakes.” One WW-P mom wrote on Facebook,
As the mother of two African American boys who are WWP students, there certainly needs to be more action taken against this student regarding his behavior, which is clearly a form of racism. The WWP district has to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. African American students and POC deserve to feel safe and this just doesn’t sit well with me knowing that this student is making racist videos, on multiple occasions and he will still be allowed to graduate. It will merely make room for more incidents like this to occur.
As word spread of the critical reactions to the first letter, Aderhold sent out a second letter acknowledging the videos were not an isolated incident but a sign of systemic racial challenges:
Last week you received communications from both district and building administrators regarding racist social media posts made by a WW-P student. Over the past week, I have heard from parents, staff members, students, alumni, and leaders in our community. It is clear from the communications that there are experiences, in particular experiences for our African American and Black students, that must be discussed and addressed…The district’s initial response to these horrific videos failed to properly communicate the district’s outrage and condemnation. Students, I am sorry and I promise you that we will do better as a district. I am providing you with a copy of my public comments, made at the WW-P Board of Education meeting on April 28. It is my hope that we can walk together in this critical work to ensure that WW-P is a community in which ALL students feel valued and ALL voices are heard.
Indeed, the racial tension here is not new. Thirty-five years ago black parents formed a group called the West Windsor-Plainsboro African American Parent Support Group, which is still active. In a statement, AAPSG leaders called the videos “racist and derogatory” with “innuendos towards African-Americans.” They described themselves as “outraged and disgusted by its content and the insensitive nature of the video.”
The student responsible for the posts apologized. (“The videos were a stupid and hurtful attempt at humor. I have made the biggest mistake of my life.”) Someone started a petition to get him rejected from the two colleges he applied to. A student posted on Facebook,
“I’m a student at North in the racist Tik Tok kid’s grade, and while I can’t speak for any other complexities in his life, I do know that he and a lot of other students he’s friends with are not bullied, but in fact in a social position where they’re constantly degrading others, especially regarding race. If some of these kids could be held responsible for half of the things they do and say on a daily basis (remember, comments like the ones made in the video are a daily occurrence), colleges rescinding their admissions would be the last of their worries.”
The parents who reached out to elaborate told me the district was “dysfunctional” and that black students were treated as “the help.” The district’s Black History coverage is desultory at best — “it stops at slavery,” one mom said, in spite of the State’s well-developed Amistad curriculum. (The Holocaust curriculum, she noted, is fully implemented.) She continued, “if a superintendent writes a letter like that [referring to the first one], he doesn’t have the right people around him who understand diversity.” Another said, “they spend money to privilege white and Asian students.” She continued, “we see racism here all the time. Why are people so surprised by the videos?”
One mom’s daughter attended a focus group set up to address the video and heard a student say he was called “the n-word.” Another said a teacher told a class that “slavery wasn’t so bad.”
If there is safety in numbers, WW/P is not safe for black students. At the two high schools, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and WW-P High School North, black students represent a tiny percentage of enrollment: 5% at one and 8% at the other. The achievement gaps are stark. At High School South 90% of Asian students either meet or exceed expectations in 10th grade English Language Arts but only 44% of black students do. At High School North for the same grade and subject, 94% of Asians meet or exceed expectations and 45% of black students do. (For context, the state average is 58%.)
- White students are 2.8 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Black students.
- Black students are 4.1 times as likely to be suspended as White students.
- Black students are, on average, academically 2 grades behind White students.
This district needs a lot more than a few focus groups. We’ll let a WW-P student have the final word:
With all of the resources available, educational materials, and money to educate himself on better behavior, please do not tell me this is a ‘kid’. He knew exactly what he was doing and was pushing to go viral, while falling back on ‘freedom of expression’ to perpetuate racist and hateful speech. With the push towards social-emotional learning in the past few years, the administration needs to use that in telling this senior that he needs to own up to his actions in order to encourage his own growth in learning why they were racist and should not be used again, instead of asking the community to forgive him when he has shown no remorse. He should learn how deep these wounds go for the black community, while he stands on his pedestal looking down. He should be apologizing to black students and his community, before we jump as a community in forgiving him for our (growth?!) What a disappointing and political response, West Windsor-Plainsboro North Regional School District