In an emotional public meeting, Collingswood High School students and their families testified to abuse and negligence they say they’ve endured from district staff for years.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 14, 2023
After a week of nonstop, vocal protests over campus conditions that they described as manipulative, abusive, and discriminatory, Collingswood students shared their experiences of the borough high school with the community at large on Monday evening.
In an open forum that ran for nearly three hours, students named names, calling out district staffers who had both uplifted and oppressed them in an environment where they said Black and brown students are subjected to disproportionate discipline as compared with their white counterparts.
Their stories — and those of some of their parents — were raw with emotion, detailing allegations of sexual and physical abuse, neglect, gaslighting, and bullying at the hands of teachers and administrators within the district.
Some of the accusations levied are unprintable in whole or in part, but Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Fredrick McDowell said that every last one will be logged and investigated, as the district grapples with problems that some community members say have stretched on for decades.
“I’m saddened that our children have been suffering in silence,” McDowell said after the meeting. “We can no longer sit idly by without some action.”
While the district begins to formalize its process for addressing the stories raised publicly Monday evening, the superintendent said he will be meeting Tuesday with each student who spoke at the meeting “to formalize the investigation, and get to the crux of where the problems are coming from.”
McDowell said the district will also establish “a very clear and convenient way [for students]to voice their concerns, and for those concerns to be investigated” in order to prevent further encounters from going unaddressed.
“This is not a one-stop conversation,” he said. “This is the beginning of a much larger conversation that needs to continue.”
‘This can’t be what I thought it was’
Perhaps the most startling account from the evening was that of Addison Dowdy-Henderson, a high-school freshman who alleged that she was inappropriately touched by a teacher during the 2022 homecoming dance, and then ejected from the event without her parents being notified.
Dowdy-Henderson said she was subsequently questioned about the incident by her principal, but drew his frustration for refusing to speak without her parents present.
“I told them, ‘My dad said the principal can’t question me until my dad comes,’” she said. “He said, ‘If you’re refusing to get questioned, that’s on you.’ I said, ‘I’m not refusing, I have to wait until my dad comes later.’
“I’ve been questioned about three times already, and after that, my parents made a meeting to speak with the superintendent and principal,” Dowdy-Henderson said.
“I was sent an apology letter from the vice-principal, who was chaperoning the dance at the time,” she continued. “Other than that, I was left alone without any emotional support.
“I continue to see that same teacher in the hallways,” Dowdy-Henderson said. “I was never told his name. It’s been hard to deal with and ignore. It’s been sitting at the back of my mind constantly.”
Speaking after the meeting, her father, Mark Dowdy-Henderson, said that he was bothered not only by the unwanted encounter his daughter allegedly had with a faculty member, but that she was kicked out of the dance without school staff telling him.
“She was put on the street in her homecoming dress,” he said. “We weren’t notified that she was ejected.
“I don’t want our daughter to have to relive this over and over again,” Mark Dowdy-Henderson said. “I do want the teacher held accountable.”
His husband, Charles Dowdy-Henderson, welled up as he addressed the room Monday. Collingswood — the town where he and Mark were wed in 2013, during the first legal same-sex marriages in New Jersey — was a place where the family thought they would be insulated from the kind of treatment they received growing up. Listening to stories from his daughter and her classmates shook him to the core.
“We came here because our children would not be harassed because they have two fathers,” Charles Dowdy-Henderson said. “We’re progressive. We have a nice home. I have my degree, he has his degree, but our kids still have to go through what we went through.
“Is this another universe? This can’t be what I thought it was,” he said. “I did not realize it was like this. I had no clue, and it’s not because I chose not to, it’s because I didn’t think in 2023, it would be like this. But it is.”
Other students spoke about teachers inappropriately putting their hands on the students, or threatening them with physical violence.
Sophomore Joshua Pritchett held up his phone, claiming to have video of an instructor pulling off a student’s shoe in the middle of class, for reasons nobody could seem to determine.
Pritchett also said that an administrator whom he’d had repeated encounters with told him how she was prepared to discipline him: “I would hit you, and call your mom and tell her I hit you,” Pritchett alleged.
“I asked her, ‘Why don’t you like me?’ She said she just don’t like me cause she don’t like me,” he said.
“I get blamed for some things I don’t do, some things I do do,” Pritchett said. “But I hold myself accountable.
“I won’t stand up here and censor anything out because I wasn’t born like that,” he said. “I was born to talk how I’m spoken to; as y’all respect me, I respect y’all. My people inside of Collingswood High School are hurting.”
Sophomore Kevin Jones decried the lack of safety for students at school, and how much anxiety the current environment instills within him, even when he’s not there. During last week’s protests, Jones had related a story of how a dispute with a Collingswood teacher almost came to blows, with the adult telling him he was prepared to lose his license if it meant putting the student in his place.
“This school is mentally draining,” he said. “I would sit home in my room and think to myself, ‘Why?’
“They don’t care how I can be so angry, and I tell somebody to leave me alone, they’re going to keep going, but when I explode, I’m the wrong person in the situation,” Jones said. “It shouldn’t be like that.
“We deserve to be treated like human beings,” he said. “We deserve a safe environment, because this isn’t safe.”
Jones and other Black students, like Jordyn Kirby, said that not only are there few building staff who aren’t white, but that Black teachers may not stay long in the district when they are hired. If students do grow comfortable with a Black staff member — as many of them said they are with an administrative assistant at the high school — they’re often discouraged from interacting with them by school authorities.
Kirby described how she’d once enjoyed a close relationship with a former teacher who’d allow Black students to come to her classroom to do their work. That teacher eventually left for a better-paying job in a different school, Kirby said.
“Every time I go and build relationships with teachers, I can’t because they want to leave,” she said. “It hurts. But I’m proud of them because they’re doing way better at a different school.”
“We just need people to understand who we are,” Jones said.
Senior Tatum Randazzo said that her experiences as a white student dating a Black student included being “labeled” by CHS staff, followed more closely by administrators than her other white counterparts were, and “asked questions I had no right to be asked.
“But nobody heard me when I was sitting there, crying in the hallway,” she said.
“I can’t say, ‘Good morning’ anymore; I don’t get that level of respect from my teachers.
“It’s a little embarrassing that it’s your job, and you make this school miserable,” she said.
“We just want you guys to see us and hear us,” Randazzo said. “This has been held in for so long, and now it’s finally just coming out. I hope this is an eye-opener, but we can change things from this point on.”
‘We just want to be a part of the family’
Testimonials from district parents underscored that the problems families of color have endured during their time in Collingswood weren’t limited to the high-school experience. A resident identified only as Kaye said that since moving to the borough 15 years ago, “every last one of my children has been subjected to racial profiling.
“I’m living proof that everything these kids have gone through is the truth because it happened to mine,” she said.
Her ninth-grade son, however, had had it the worst, Kaye said. At age four, a teacher told her the boy was “making gang signs” with his hands, despite having lived his whole life in Collingswood and never having encountered a gang.
In middle school, the same child was accused, without evidence, of having sexually assaulted another student in the bathroom at school, and Kaye said she wasn’t even notified until after he was questioned by authorities.
“My son had the police called on him, interrogated him inside the office for crimes he never committed, and I never got a call because I was at work,” she said. “My son was already an introvert to begin with, but because of the lack of support, he has spent five years walking on eggshells and doesn’t even know how to make friends.”
Kaye said the mistreatment didn’t end there; she alleged that she was advised by school counselors that “college was not in the cards for my son; that he would be better off getting job training sweeping the restaurants on Haddon Avenue, without even looking at his file.
“These children are being targeted, and they are depressed,” she said. “They are hurting. Their innocence is being lost and violated by a bunch of adults whose innocence was lost and violated growing up.
“What happened to Collingswood?” Kaye asked.
“I was in love with you. We suffered because we want to be happy. We just want to be a part of the family.
“You claim that we are all one, that we are all one neighborhood,” she said.
“It should have never gotten to this point.”
CHS alumna Antonette Barnett said that Collingswood schools compounded the problems she was having in her personal life instead of being a respite from them.
She described being bullied and attempting suicide multiple times, while the students who allegedly demeaned her weren’t confronted for their behavior.
“At home, my mom was an addict,” Barnett said. “I didn’t have a support system. When I went to counseling, they didn’t take care of the kids who were bullying me. They didn’t want to do anything about it because they were in sports.
“We lost so many people to drugs, to addiction, because they would use drugs as a gateway to get out of their feelings,” she said.
Sofia, a CHS junior who moved to America at five, said she’s been asked to tutor some fellow students for whom English is a second language. Although she enjoys helping them, she said she shouldn’t be their primary form of support.
“The school isn’t catering towards those kids that cannot get through their classes and get through their work because they don’t understand it,” Sofia said. “They rely on a 16-year-old junior to help them get through their classes, and I don’t think that’s fair. Those who don’t speak English, they’re important too. Maybe they can’t use their voice, but they need to be heard.”
Even though her transgender son has been called “a faggot, a tranny, and a freak” throughout his experiences at Collingswood High School, resident Melissa Goldman said that he still is able to get through his days with fewer disruptions than students of color in the district can.
“For that small amount of time they’re at school, you assume your kids are happy, that they’re safe, and they’re engaged,” Goldman said. “I’m here to tell you that not all of them are. I was embarrassed.”
Tyler Goldman said that he’s seen one teacher in specific “smack a kid, grab a kid by the back of the head, [and]misgender queer students.
“When it was brought to her attention, she said, ‘I’m 56 years old; my generation is just different,” he said. “My mother is 53; her mother is 73. It’s not a generational thing. It’s a personal issue.”
‘We’ve got a lot of work to do’
Other parents offered words of encouragement to the students who spoke up, and pledged to be part of the community solution to see circumstances in the district remedied.
Fabian Brown, whose daughter Isabella was among the organizers of last week’s demonstrations, urged all levels of district leadership, from the Board of Education to individual teachers, to keep the best interests of the students in the district in mind.
“Whoa, that’s tough!” Brown said. “But not as tough as these stories tonight.
“Teachers, don’t be on the sideline when you see a colleague not doing the right thing, because you are perpetuating the nonsense inside of our community,” he said.
Brown also encouraged the students to continue speaking up about their experiences.
“No matter how tough the situation is at school, there are adults who will listen to you,” he said.
Collingswood resident Bruce Smith offered further affirmation, telling students, “You’re going to be okay regardless of what happened in school.
“You don’t hear it enough: it’s going to be okay,” Smith said. “You’re going to go through this here; you’re going to go through this at work. Stand up for what you’re speaking, speak what you believe, and you’re going to be okay.”
Camden City organizer Gary Frazier, who provided the students with a PA system and a megaphone for their demonstrations, said that the students’ behavior throughout these incidents reflects “true democracy.
“The can kept getting kicked down the street,” Frazier said. “They kept ignoring the children until suddenly the children spilled out of the school.
“These children found their voices, probably two days ago; and they began to organize,” he said. “They brought to light what you guys kept and wanted to keep hidden for so long. I’m going to ask everybody in Collingswood to join in with these students to address their grievances here tonight.”
Collingswood Board of Education President Regan Kaiden said that district leaders are committed to addressing the issues raised Monday in all forms. She, too, praised the students for their self-advocacy and persistence.
“It takes incredible courage to speak truth to power,” Kaiden said. “They did it with grace, eloquence, and a plan.”
As for the school district, “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said.
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