School district settles lawsuit with parent group alleging segregation

After two years of advocacy and litigation, Walter Fields got the news he’s been waiting for. The South Orange-Maplewood school board voted unanimously to settle with his organization, Black Parents Workshop, and address alleged systemic racism in the district.

“My daughter is ecstatic. She really understands the significance of this,” he said.

His daughter Jordan is the inspiration behind his fight for equality. When she was in the district’s high school, she had the grades to get into an advanced math course but wasn’t allowed to enroll. So Fields did what most parents would do and started digging for answers.

“We began to realized that there were a lot of students who were in this category of students, African American students, who were not being allowed to take the most rigorous courses,” he said. “And that’s when we understood that we had a systemic problem here that was much greater than just one individual student. And the same class of students is also subject to the most severe discipline.”

Ryan Coughlan, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College, looked into the data and concluded, “not only does the district allow segregation to persist between schools, but it also segregates students within schools.”

“If you look at math courses in sixth grade, the latest data shows that there’s three levels of math in the district. And if you look at the lowest level of math, it is far higher proportion of students who identify as Black or African American and a far lower proportion of students who identify as white. And you make your way up to the highest level and the trend flips,” Coughlan said.

Fields says the settlement ensures transparency because the district will now be required to provide data on class enrollment and discipline by race. He says a consultant has also been hired to integrate the elementary schools, which are only a mile or so apart.

“As of right now, the district assigns students to a school based off of where they live,” Coughlan said. “Seth Boyden has roughly about 20% of its students identify as white and approximately 60% of the students identify as Black or African American. And pretty much at every other elementary school it’s pretty much the opposite.”

The Superintendent Ronald Taylor was not available for an interview, but said in a statement, “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.”

Fields agrees the focus should be on action. He wants the changes to happen quickly, and he says COVID-19 is not an excuse to delay.

“Whether it’s returning to classrooms or virtual learning or some hybrid model, the goal and the responsibility is still the same. We have to educate our children. And if we’re not going back to classrooms, it certainly gives the school district more time to think about how do you racially balance the schools when we return,” Fields said.

Fields noted the settlement aligns with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.

“There are districts across the country that have these same identical issues,” Fields said.

His daughter, who graduated senior of the year at the University of Pittsburg, plans to attend law school. She decided to switch her career path so she could fight for other children the way her dad did for her.