In one of NJ’s highly segregated school districts, students…

Yamia Bermudez knows who to blame for the rough treatment she and other students experienced at Newark’s School of Global Studies, which was singled out in an internal school district report for the “anti-Blackness and other deficit beliefs” prevalent in the school.

“I believe the parents are responsible for it all,” Bermudez said. She said she’s spoken at school board meetings about anti-Black, anti-gay and anti-trans slurs by classmates. “I feel like, as a child, technically, it’s not my place to fix stuff that was here before I was here. I should not have to be facing these issues headfirst because my school didn’t want to address issues of racism.”

Bermudez spoke with Gothamist while attending “The State of Segregation,” a panel discussion at Newark Library Thursday hosted by New Jersey Public Radio, NJ Spotlight News and Chalkbeat Newark, with support from the Center for Cooperative Media.

The talk comes amid a period of uncertainty for New Jersey public schools, among the most segregated in the country, following a recent court ruling that recognized the state has a responsibility to integrate the schools, but didn’t make any prescriptions about how.

It featured dialogue with students and families who say issues of racism and disparate access to opportunity in schools have shaped their educational experiences. That includes in Newark, one of 23 districts identified across eight counties the lawsuit identified as significantly racially and economically segregated.

Research by the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers-Newark says segregated schools are less likely to offer their students advanced courses, more likely to discipline them harshly and less able to attract quality teachers and administrators.

The research also finds nearly one-third of New Jersey’s students attend school in racially or economically segregated environments.

Bermudez attended to hear from panelist and fellow student David Allen, a friend and classmate during their time at Global Studies, a Latino-majority school where Chalkbeat Newark reports Black students have told district leaders they’ve experienced repeated slurs, conflicts and anti-Black bigotry.

Bermudez, who is Black and Puerto Rican, said the treatment she saw and experienced got so bad that she ultimately left the magnet school and returned to another school she’d previously attended in the city. Allen said he founded the school’s Black Student Union to get concerns taken seriously, before eventually transferring out.

“I’m not even 18, and like, 18’s technically adulthood, but even still, I don’t feel as if I should have to carry these burdens of speaking and advocating, and have to tell people that this is what I deserve and I deserve to have my rights taken care of,” Bermudez told Gothamist.

Here are some views from other attendees and panelists.

Not only about segregation

Maggie Freeman, a community advocate and former Newark school board candidate who lives in the city’s South Ward, has been a Newark resident for most of her life. And now she’s raising a son in the city.

“I feel like the community aunt as I grow older. I’m probably gonna become the grandmother, too,” she said.

Her son saw disparities in resources at multiple charter schools, and political and logistical struggles as the city’s school system emerged from 22 years of state control. And, she says, Newark is lacking in the “fundamentals of a quality education” compared to more suburban communities.

“And we can’t keep talking about segregation being a barrier. If all of these billions of dollars are in our schools, if it’s here, why is it not working for us? And I think that’s the challenge that all of us kind of trying to rack our head, you know, trying to figure out,” she said. “We have resources, the money is there. Are people not getting hired? It’s just it’s not enough talent? Is it the state of the world? We have no idea what’s causing the barrier or the roadblocks, but we know it urgently needs to be fixed.”

Maggie Freeman, a resident of Newark’s South Ward, says issues of performance or educational culture can’t be chalked up to segregation alone.

Drive for accountability

Christian Martinez, a freshman at Kean University, spoke on the panel. He said he attended Barringer High School in Newark as well as school in another Essex County community that “had an abundant amount of funding compared to a school here in Newark.”

“The love for the school … has not been shown,” he said. “And you can see that as soon as you walk in the door.”

He referred to beaten-up textbooks and teachers who weren’t “as passionate as you would assume them to be.” There are some resources, but not enough, he said.

“That doesn’t justify the fact that the school is undercared for,” he said.

And he stressed a need to hold leaders accountable for quality educational experience.

“I really, really hope that … my fellow peers, my Latinos, my Black and brown students, I hope that they are listening and that they are watching this livestream and that they tell their friends about it,” he said. “Tell their friends to wake up or wake up their friends. Tell everyone to please vote.”

It was a sentiment Allen shared.

“So I would like to see a change in leadership pretty much across the board,” he said. “Because yeah, it’s important to have people who look like you [in leadership], but if they have no compassion for the things you’ve been through, if they are only a color, it really makes no difference.”

‘Blackness in all its beauty’

Mark Comesañas, executive director of My Brother’s Keeper Newark as well as a former head of the LEAD Charter School in the city, said he attended both public and private schools in the city. His classmates were majority Black and Latino, he said.

“There was an affirmation that I experienced, seeing community at its best, seeing Blackness in all its beauty that I cherish. … And so it maybe it’s different and it’s maybe somewhat controversial, but I, appreciated being in a community with people who looked like me, who were from my city, who were grappling with and talking about a lot of the same issues that I was dealing with as a young man growing up in this city,” Comesañas said.

He said his first Black male teacher, in high school, taught him respect for and responsibility to the city’s Black and Latino communities, and he said he carried that through his school experience.

And he said, for him, that raised a question: Whether struggles with opportunity and achievement are about segregation at their core — or if other systemic issues are in play.

“It is difficult for me to say that the reason we are having these challenges — and I’m not saying anyone is saying this explicitly — that the reason these challenges are showing up is because the space is all Black and brown,” Comesañas said. “And I just want to caution us to not draw that correlation because I don’t think that that’s where the correlation should be drawn.”

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