Panel discussion in Collingswood addresses recent racial controversy

6 mins read
Nadeen Herring, Ellie Tyler, Zakiya Devinte, Daitza Cohen, Marcus Bell, and Bruce Smith sit on a panel (Ahnyah Pinckney/Black In Jersey

In April, NJ Pen reported that a group of students at Collingswood High School organized a white student union in response to the school’s Black Student Union. These students are also responsible for defacing a student vehicle with racial slurs.

According to the report, seven to nine students were involved in the harassment and, after an investigation, received a 10-day suspension.

Although the incident occurred last month, the community is still grappling with how to handle the matter.

A recent meeting at Collingswood Senior Community Center addressed the ongoing racial tension. In response to the racial issues, the school district created the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, which hosted a panel discussion to foster community unity.

The panel consisted of Black and Brown community members sharing their experiences with racism in their early years and within the Collingswood community.

Some attendees were seen walking out as the conversation became heated and the stories more traumatizing.

Bruce Smith, the chairperson of the DEI Committee, said, “It was the hope that the panelists would be ok. Everybody in the audience has to live with how they deal with what’s being said, but more importantly, could the panelists who are going through what they’re going through get through it.”

Amylia Tra, a senior at Collingswood High School, attended the meeting and felt it was unproductive because the adults were too far removed from the high school experience. “It was just adults who haven’t had a grasp of what high school is anymore. Some of the people on the panel were much older and didn’t go to Collingswood High School, who don’t know the situation at hand, who didn’t go to school the day after finding out they all got suspended,” said Tra.

Tra mentioned that the boys responsible for the white student union had been subtly spreading their propaganda for months. She recounted discovering WSU acronyms in the yearbook and alerting her teacher, leading to revisions even though the yearbooks had already been printed.

One of the prominent WSU members, who leads the school’s anime club, had posters around the school with “endorsed by WSU” printed at the bottom. “It wasn’t until people found out what that meant, what was happening when people started to catch that this was all over our school, all these posters and in the yearbook,” said Tra.

The boys responsible for the WSU received a 10-day suspension and were removed from their specialized senior leadership and English classes to attend a rehabilitating class. However, only one student was barred from attending prom.

Nadeen Herring, a panelist, shared her challenging experience in Collingswood, where she has faced ongoing hostility from neighbors, including finding feces on her steps. Herring’s son, a senior at the high school, highlighted that the racial harassment is not new, noting that Black and Brown students tried to raise awareness last year but felt ignored by the administration.

“Last year, our Black and Brown high school students walked out of classrooms in the spirit of solidarity to rise against the overt and covert racist treatment of teachers and staff NOT seeing them. Result? We talked about it and committed to do better as a community. Now, one year later, privileged, favored white boys create a self-centered answer to the Black Student Union with a ‘white student union’,” Herring said.

“These same white supremacists then go a step further to harass, threaten, and mock students of color at will, thus committing hate crimes. The priority is seemingly questionable, for still our Black and Brown youth are reminded again – after witnessing a ‘vacation-suspension’ of the offenders – that Black and Brown scholars are afterthoughts as these white supremacists still attend school to serve as reminders that white is right. And as recent as less than 2 weeks ago, one of the offenders told a Black boy that he wanted to ‘lynch him’. Progress? You tell me,” Herring added.

Daniel Heredia, a senior at Collingswood High School, expressed disbelief at how many people dismissed the incident as jokes rather than recognizing it as overt racism. “People put that thing off as just making jokes and then it comes out that they weren’t just jokes. It was actual genuine racism and I think that a lot more punishment needed to happen… I just think it’s ridiculous because I’m going to prom soon and I might have to see someone who quite literally told a black person that they’d lynch them in school,” said Heredia.

Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Fred McDowell told NJ Penn, “These kinds of things continue to surface when communities fail to appropriately acknowledge, invest, and respond to the historical challenges that have been associated with race.”

Collingswood is a predominantly white town, with 80% of residents being white, 12.65% Black or African American, 1.1% Asian, and 1.26% from other races.