POLICE CALLED AFTER A THIRD GRADER SAID BROWNIES WERE “MADE OUT OF BURNT BLACK PEOPLE”
Two kindergartners fighting. One student calling another “fat” because the first called him “short.” A rough game of tag. And an alleged racist comment about brownies at a third-grade class party that drew national attention.
These were among 22 complaints Collingswood police investigated during the last month of school, when officials in the district of 1,875 students began reporting nearly every incident of student misbehavior to law enforcement as part of a new policy.
The incidents are detailed in police reports that the Inquirer obtained Friday through a public records request. None of the reports is more than two pages long and they contain brief summaries of the situations.
Parents did not file complaints in any of these cases. Police questioned students in 16 of them – and in all 16, these interviews happened before parents were contacted, according to narratives from the reports. That fact is one that has particularly roiled parents in the 14,000-resident borough, where many residents feel that public officials misled them.
In several cases, teachers had not witnessed the incidents in question but were merely responding to complaints from their students.
In one instance, which spurred widespread debate on social media, a third grader at William P. Tatem Elementary School was questioned by police June 16 for allegedly making a racist comment about brownies during a class party. The boy said the brownies were “made out of burnt black people,” according to a police report written by an officer who spoke to two third graders who heard the remark. The report does not include input from the teacher. The boy’s family said the teacher had not overheard the remark.
The student, who is 9, told police that he “did not mean to” make the remark and that he was sorry for making his classmates upset. He was not directing the statement at any particular students in the class, he told police.
The boy’s mother said in an interview with the Inquirer in late June that she only knew her son was “talking about brownies.” She could not be reached for comment Friday. School officials have described the boy’s comments as “incendiary” and said they back the decision to contact police.
The police reporting protocol was adopted after school officials met May 25 with the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office following an incident earlier this spring when Collingswood High School administrators did not report student misconduct promptly enough, Mayor Jim Maley has said. The details of that incident have not been released.
Now, the school district has reverted to its old policy, which requires schools to report only serious incidents like those involving weapons, drugs, or sexual misconduct.
On June 6, also at Tatem, police were called to look into a drawing – of a zombie holding a gun – one student had sent to a classmate. A week earlier, police questioned two second graders who had been roughhousing on the way to lunch.
One of the children’s mothers told the Inquirer her 7-year-old son – who was under the impression that he had been arrested – was traumatized, and has only recently begun to talk about the incident with her.
“Nobody notified me. I wasn’t there for him,” she said last month. “I always tell him, ‘I will always be there for you, whether you’re right or wrong.’ I said I was going to be there for him, but I wasn’t.”
The accounts are similar at Thomas Sharp Elementary, where police responded June 3 after a fourth grader pushed another student who had lifted him off the ground. That same day, in a separate incident, principal Karen Principato contacted police after receiving a complaint from a student’s mother, who said other kids were too rough with her child during tag. The mother told police she just wanted school officials to keep an eye on the children.
On June 9, police questioned a second grader after he punched a fellow student in the chin for cutting the line to leave class. That student then slapped the boy on the side of the head. Neither was injured, and they returned to class.
At Zane North Elementary School, police on June 6 questioned a student who had made a gun noise and held his wooden ukulele “like a gun” during music class. The student told police he “was only kidding.” Other cases at Zane involved the kindergarten fight, in which a student said a classmate had hit him, and two students trading insults like “fat” and “short” in the cafeteria.
At Collingswood Middle School, officers were called to investigate three allegations of harassment and two of assault.
The harassment cases include one in which a student was called a cheater during gym class basketball and was asked “when he was going to blow up the school.” One female student’s mother alleged that a male student had called her daughter “Aunt Jemima” for more than a month, and one student accused a group of classmates of calling him names and throwing rocks at him.
In one alleged assault at the school, an eighth grader stabbed another in the arm after the first called him a name. In another, a student wrapped a cord around a friend’s neck, according to the reports.
The mother of the latter aggressor acknowledged that her son was “dead wrong” to do what he did. But she said the detention the school gave her son “should have been it.”
At Collingswood High School, police responded for one student bumping into another, a phone theft from a gym locker, a student threatening to beat up a classmate, and an allegation of two students engaging in a sexual act, which turned out to be unfounded, according to the reports.
The high school, the middle school, and Thomas Sharp each saw five cases between May 25, when the policy was adopted, and the end of school June 17.
Tatem and Zane North each had three cases. Police were dispatched to James A. Garfield Elementary once, when a school employee reported $45 missing from her purse. They never went to Mark Newbie Elementary School.
Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey would not specify Friday whether 22 is an unusually high number of complaints to receive from schools in a month. But the new protocol required police to respond to many incidents they previously would not have investigated, including anything “as minor as a simple name-calling incident that the school would typically handle internally,” he said last month.
“Just about every” case, Carey said, was to be referred to the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, a protocol that was especially alarming for adoptive families and parents hoping to foster children in the future.
Maley, who attended the May 25 meeting, has since described the protocol as the result of a “misunderstanding,” but parents remain outraged the district changed its reporting standard without telling them.
No public statement was issued to parents until June 27, 10 days after the school year ended. And for weeks, Carey and school leaders blamed the prosecutor’s office for the protocol and County Prosecutor Mary Colalillo denied that her office had issued a new directive.
Colalillo said Friday through her spokesman that the only report she had seen was the one detailing the brownie incident and that her office does not receive reports unless charges are filed.
After a five-hour meeting behind closed doors Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office and borough officials issued a joint statement and each accepted some responsibility for the policy and its effect on district students.
Parents continue to call for a public meeting with those officials.