Longtime Hackensack Middle School teacher Raquel James-Goodman tendered her resignation Tuesday, following a Board of Education vote that she says was just another example of systemic racism in Hackensack.
James-Goodman, who had been with the Hackensack School District for 13 years, was saddened and disappointed by the fact that BOE Trustee Frances Cogelja refused to vote on a resolution to promote diversity and abolish racism in the district. The referendum was otherwise passed unanimously by the board’s eight other members.
To James-Goodman -- who is black -- the problem is not just Cogelja, she said: "It's the culture of the district.
"Hackensack is overall resistant to progress. There have been complaints from two, three, four teachers for more than a year. That wasn't enough. The data has been saying this for years. Why is Hackensack only doing this now?"
"When there was finally a ray of light, when there was finally a resolution, the board couldn't even be in agreement."
Cogelja was at the center of another controversy last year when she said that the district’s then newly adopted LGBT curriculum made her uncomfortable and that she felt it would be a waste of the students’ time. She did not respond to the Daily Voice request for a comment Wednesday.
Superintendent Robert Sanchez said only that he could not comment on personnel matters.
A special June 22 meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. to discuss board governance.
James-Goodman informed the district of her resignation in a letter, citing incidents over the last two years at the middle school that have made it impossible for her to continue teaching there.
"A string of anti-black racist assaults at the Middle School has contributed to a decline in my overall health," she said in the letter. “Unfortunately, despite reporting each incident and actively advocating for anti-racist and implicit bias training, very little has changed, initiatives have been promised and delayed, and I have reached a breaking point.
"I can't imagine going back to a school that allows racism to destroy opportunities for students of color and staff members alike, and that won't hold adults accountable and institute a plan to help us heal."
Daily Voice has spoken with several other current and former Hackensack school employees who cited the same concerns as James-Goodman, and more of their own.
Racist policies, practices, and curricula contribute to an anti-black culture that allows white teachers special privileges in the district, James-Goodman said. "Challenging" black students are transferred to the classrooms of the few black teachers, she said. In one case, a student was challenging a white teacher, who told James-Goodman they thought he'd do better with her, and that he needed a "black role model."
"This is an example of prioritizing white comfort over the needs of black students and staff members," James-Goodman said, adding she was never part of the conversation or any meetings prior to this student being transferred into her classroom.
"There’s no evidence to support transferring this student. It’s clearly based on race."
James-Goodman feels black educators are underrepresented in Hackensack -- a predominantly black and Latin district.
A state report shows 9.6% of students in Hackensack are white and 63.8% of teachers are white. Meanwhile, 22.4% of students are black, and only 10.3% of the teachers are black (see graphs below).
The situation escalated in 2019 when a pattern of racial exclusion became clear to James-Goodman, she said. Over several years, in-school baby showers were planned for the white teachers -- but not teachers of color, according to James-Goodman and former colleague Sila Francobido, a black Latina.
"For some people it was nothing while others were outraged," Francobido said. "For me it was a sample of what I’ve experienced my whole life: Racism."
James-Goodman confronted an administrator who allegedly played a large role in organizing the showers, she said, and even filed an affirmative action complaint. The whole situation left James-Goodman feeling like her work friends were no longer her friends, just colleagues.
"That’s when it became somewhat unbearable for me," James-Goodman said. "People stopped talking to me. They avoided making eye contact. It was almost like I was invisible at times."
The complaint was deemed unfounded, and so James-Goodman voiced her concerns to Sanchez and the district's affirmative action officer, Andrea Parchment, she said.
Sanchez asked if she wanted to be transferred to another school. She declined, but was placed on the affirmative action committee. What followed, James-Goodman said, were extensive discussions about systemic changes and a handful of training seminars.
She completed lots of "informal" work and, though feeling empowered, but believed that little to nothing was still being done.
"District leadership did not take an active role to address the racial tension in the building or the district," she said.
"What made me endure the hostile work environment at Hackensack Middle School created by my colleagues and administrators alike, were the students," she said in her letter of resignation.
"The students in Hackensack are intelligent, talented, and kind, and they have given me great pleasure. I have learned so much from every one of them, and I am grateful to have had the honor to teach them.
"These kids deserve the very best from all staff members, and I hope that Hackensack commits to serving every child with respect and equity."
The same day James-Goodman resigned, she created a Change.org petition calling for monthly mandatory anti-racist professional development training for Hackensack's teachers and staff, restorative justice, trauma-informed policies to discipline, with mandatory training, revised social studies curricula that teach the experiences of black, indigenous Latinos, and Asian experiences in the U.S. -- and more.
James-Goodman said Cogelja's refusal to vote spoke to the district's clear divide on racism.
"It wasn't enough when there were just a few black teachers saying there's a problem," she said. "The data has been saying this for years now."
"We need to teach our community to see life through a different lens and promote inclusion," Francobido added. "The change begins now."
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