Dec 18, 2017 — Dear petition supporters,
First, thank you for your support. We have great news to report. On Tuesday, Dec 12, the Bergen County Technical Schools (BCTS) held its monthly public board of education meeting. Note that Bergen County Academies (BCA) is part of the BCTS school district. At the board meeting, various Bergen County elected officials, Korean-American community group representatives, BCA parents and students attended and expressed their comments, concerns and questions to the board members with regard to the September 7 incident and the handling of the incident by BCA.
On the following day on Dec 13, Mr. Howard Lerner, Superintendent of BCTS, issued a response to a statement released by representatives of various Korean-American organizations. The response addressed and met similar requests that we had indicated in our petition, which included 1) a formal acknowledgement and apology for the incident 2) a cultural bias and sensitivity training for the faculty 3) removing the responsible teacher from the classroom. The response is provided below for your reference. The responsible teacher has been removed from the classroom at BCA effective immediately and has been reassigned to another district position outside of the classroom. So, we also regard that these actions have met our petition requests. However, we understand that follow-up discussions are ongoing to ensure that the measures indicated in the response will be implemented beyond the BCTS district. Again, we would like to thank you for your support and for taking a position on this important matter.
Concerned Parents of BCA
RESPONSE TO 11/29/2017 PUBLIC STATEMENT FROM KOREAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY REGARDING BERGEN COUNTY ACADEMIES INCIDENT
On November 29, 2017, a statement was released to the public by representatives of ten Bergen County Korean-American organizations. The statement expressed concerns about an incident that occurred at the Bergen County Academies (“BCA”) on the first day of school in September, and included a list of measures the groups would like taken to resolve the matter.
The Bergen County Technical Schools (“BCTS”) is, by policy, by practice and by history, a school district committed to rigorous education of its students in an environment that is safe and supportive. To that end, BCTS promotes the values of understanding and respect for diversity through its instruction and in its culture. We have been engaged with this situation from the moment it was reported to administration and we have been in regular dialog with parents and students, and then with community representatives, as the matter has progressed. We will continue to communicate with involved individuals and representatives in an effort to work on resolutions to their concerns. We are also responding publicly at this time so that individuals who are not directly involved, and the community at large, are reassured about the school district’s intentions and actions.
As a school district, the highest priority of the BCTS is to effectively protect and educate its students. As an employer, and a public entity, the BCTS school district also has other legal obligations with which it must comply, including the protection of the confidentiality rights of its employees and students. We believe that the escalation of community concern regarding this situation may be the result of a lack of available information about the incident and the steps the district has taken to address it. Details of this nature are, by law, protected by employee confidentiality and typically not disclosed to the public for that reason.
Because understandable community concern has grown over the past few weeks, we have asked for and received authorization from the teacher involved to publically share information that the school district learned through its investigations of this matter. Our hope is that this additional detail will provide context to the situation and, also, give confidence to the community that the BCTS district is deeply committed to promoting understanding and respect for diversity as a cornerstone of healthy educational and work environments.
The first day of school for BCTS students this year was September 7th. That evening the Principal of the BCA received telephone and email messages from a number of students and their parents reporting that a teacher had said “I hate Koreans” to students during a class that day. If true, such a comment would be unquestionably unacceptable. The Principal immediately notified central administration which, in turn, enlisted the assistance of the district Affirmative Action Officer (“AAO”) as well. The teacher was immediately reassigned in accordance with district practice to separate parties in “conflict” situations, at least until the matter is understood and resolved. School administration and the AAO then separately investigated the complaints and arrived at independent conclusions that the teacher had, in fact, made this comment. During these investigations, school administration took steps to counsel and support any students impacted, and kept in regular contact with parents and parent organization representatives through meetings and discussions with the BCA Principal and the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Schools.
Recent public statements from community groups concerned about this situation have used the term “hate” in describing their understanding of it. What the district found through its investigations, however, is that this was an instance of poor instructional technique, inadequate sensitivity, and carelessness on the part of the teacher, but not an instance of “hate” or malicious intent. As part of the teacher’s first-day encounters with students in a particular advanced-level course, the teacher attempted to communicate to students that respect for diversity would be a recurring theme in their lessons throughout the year. As part of the exercise, the teacher went around the classroom asking different students to share information about their family backgrounds. The teacher shared similar information about the teacher’s own ethnicity as well. When students identified their own various ancestries, the teacher commented “I like ‘X’” or “I like ‘Y.’” The teacher
told investigators that, when students said they were of Korean descent, the teacher said, in response, “I hate Koreans” in an attempt to make a provocative point about the negative attitudes some people have about cultural diversity.
The teacher believed that, in the context of the conversation, the students would understand the intended inappropriateness of this comment and recognize it as an example of how generalizations and prejudgments can lead to damaging misperceptions. The teacher shared with investigators that this theme and exercise had been part of the teacher’s “first day” conversations with students for several years without any questions or complaints having been raised.
The school district’s investigators concluded that the teacher’s genuine intent was to prepare these students for a year-long discussion about diversity and respect woven into their instruction. School investigators also believed, however, that the students heard the teacher repeatedly speak the phrase “I hate Koreans” in class and left that class without an awareness of the larger message the teacher was trying to convey. Consequently, school and district administration concluded that the teacher’s instructional efforts during this lesson were poorly designed and poorly delivered. This poor teaching performance left some students, after their first day of school, with a belief, or at least a worry, that their teacher had negative feelings about them based on their ethnicity or ancestry. That is unacceptable, whether it was done intentionally and maliciously or, as here, out of inadequate self-awareness and inadequate attentiveness to student sensitivities and perceptions by the teacher.
As the immediate district-level supervisor of our school operations, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools was aware of the complaints and the steps being taken by the BCA Principal and the district AAO to investigate and understand this situation from the outset. The Assistant Superintendent provided oversight and guidance for the Principal’s investigation, and worked in concert with the BCA Principal during and after that process to provide student support and facilitate parental dialog.
I, as Superintendent of Schools, received regular reports about the information gathered in the course of our two (2) investigations, the conclusions reached based on that information, and the progress of our administrative interventions and communications up until the time I became involved directly. I believe our administration’s efforts were prompt and thorough, and their conclusions are well-reasoned and appropriate. Overall, the administration’s handling of this matter has been consistent with Board of Education policies, as well as our district’s mission to respect and celebrate the diversity of our school community.
The November 29, 2017 public statement of the Korean-American organizations indicated that “many have suggested” that the inappropriate comment made by the teacher “may have been an attempt at a ‘joke’.” As far as the district is aware from its investigations, this was speculation by some of the students interviewed about why the teacher made the inappropriate comment at issue. Nothing in the statements made to investigators by the teacher or the students who reported the incident suggested the comment was, in fact, made in a “joking” manner. If it appeared the teacher had been trying to “joke” in this manner, the district’s conclusions about the situation would have been different. The school district unequivocally agrees with the comments and the rationale expressed in the November 29, 2017 public statement regarding the toxicity of such “jokes.”
The community organizations who issued the November 29, 2017 public statement requested that the BCTS implement a number of measures to resolve this matter, as follows:
1) “An unequivocal and formal acknowledgment and apology…in a public manner to address the issue towards the community at large”: Our administrative investigations concluded that a teacher spoke the phrase “I hate Koreans” to students in class on the first day of school in September. This was inappropriate. The district, and the teacher, regrets that the words were spoken at all, and that the larger conversation in the class left students feeling denigrated and vulnerable. The teacher has already met with the students who reported the inappropriate comment, expressed remorse for creating the situation, and apologized to them personally in the presence of the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, the BCA Principal and the BCA Student Assistance Counselor. The BCA Principal, the Assistant Superintendent and I also met with parents and representatives of the Korean-American community on November 17, 2017 and apologized to them
as well. On behalf of the district and the Board of Education, I now want to apologize to the community at large for the hurtful comment the BCA teacher made, the poor professional judgment it reflected, and the significant concerns they caused in the community.
2) “A cultural bias and sensitivity training for…faculty and administration, as well as…the student body made mandatory through a resolution adopted by the Board of Education within the next 30 days”: The Board of Education has formal policies and regulations in place that: a) promote positive educational and work environments that are free from bias and discrimination; and b) support prompt, effective investigations and responses when allegations of bias and discrimination are brought forth. School staff, students and parents receive regular training throughout the school year about these policies and regulations, and about the importance of respect and sensitivity in educational and work environments. This incident will be used as a catalyst and an illustration to refine the training provided to staff members now and going forward. The BCTS will conduct additional cultural bias and sensitivity training for all faculty members this school year. District students will also receive an educational seminar about cultural bias and sensitivity this school year. Developing and delivering trainings of this nature are administrative responsibilities, but these activities will be recommended for approval by resolution at our next public Board of Education meeting.
3) “Firing of the responsible teacher”: The BCTS is a New Jersey public employer. As such, we are responsible to honor and comply with a variety of laws related to staff member employment. Furthermore, as an educational institution our mission, where it is appropriate, is to promote learning and growth. The information gathered by administration in this matter, and the conclusions it has reached based on that information, do not, in the view of school administration, support termination of this teacher’s employment under the law. By law, individual employee confidentiality rights preclude the school district from publicly discussing the details of any staff management actions related to specific employees. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10; N.J.S.A. 18A:6-120(d); N.J.S.A. 18A:6-121(d); Executive Order #26 (McGreevey); Executive Order #11 (Byrne); N.J.A.C. 6A:32-4.3. In this instance, however, the district has engaged the teacher with follow-up actions that are appropriate based on the facts, and the conclusions arrived at based on those facts. With all this said, the interests of the students and the school community will be best served by reassigning the teacher to another district position outside the classroom. This change will be made effective immediately.
The BCTS administration embraces its responsibility to educate its students in a safe, supportive environment. This includes teaching and promoting values of civic and social responsibility such as understanding and respect for diversity. In this instance we have corrected an individual teaching performance deficiency. We have taken, and will continue, steps to protect against similar deficiencies happening again anywhere in the district. We have supported, and will continue support for, the students directly involved and any that may have been indirectly impacted to ensure that individual students’ educations continue at the high level we and the public expect from all of our schools.
In addition to releasing this statement to the general public, the district will share it with all BCA families directly.
Howard Lerner, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools
December 13, 2017
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