Various concerned Abington residents started calling the Rev. Marshall Mitchell’s office at Salem Baptist Church last week.
Had he heard what was going on?
And what was he going to do about it?
The “it” callers were referring to was a racial firestorm that had been stoked at a recent meeting of the Abington school board after a new member made a polarizing remark about school resource officers carrying guns.
“There’s a lot of evidence that anyone carrying a firearm in a district building puts kids at risk, particularly students of color,” board member Tamar Klaiman said during the Jan. 21 meeting. “Black and brown students are more likely to be shot by police officers, especially school resource officers, than other students.”
To be clear, Abington’s school resource officers have never shot any students. (They’re cops who have been assigned to schools in the district.)
But numerous studies nationwide have shown that black students are often more harshly disciplined than white ones for the same offenses.
Many white residents in Abington, located in eastern Montgomery County, took great offense at what she said and rushed to defend local law enforcement. A national police group weighed in on Facebook, condemning her statement as “inappropriate and inflammatory.”
Klaiman, a parent and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, received “vile personal attacks.” She apologized for her remarks, but the animosity has continued with hurt feelings on both sides.
Parent Andrea Adams, 39, went into Tuesday’s school board meeting, where tensions flared especially high, anticipating that she would be surrounded by racists. But after listening intently to what fellow attendees said, she found that there’s a whole lot of misunderstanding about what it’s like for African Americans in Abington.
“I don’t think they realize that just because their reality is that it is perfect, that their neighbors have a different reality,” she said.
Hearing longtime Abington residents talk brings back old memories of being in school and watching my black classmates be punished more harshly than white ones for similar offenses. It also brings to mind numerous conversations I’ve had with white people who deny my experiences because they can’t relate.
That’s why I have to hand it to Mitchell, who got personally involved. He invited both Klaiman and Abington Township Police Chief Patrick Molloy to a meeting at Salem Baptist at 7:30 a.m. last Sunday. Mitchell coined what took place the “We Got This Summit.” It lasted just 40 minutes but it was long enough for Klaiman and Molloy to talk.
“The early stages of mature, adult, godly reconciliation happened,” Mitchell said. "We realized in that moment that we have so much in common.”
In other words, they all want what’s best for Abington students.
After their meeting, they posed for pictures and issued a joint statement that reads in part: “We feel the conversation was extremely productive. Dr. Klaiman reiterated her regret for her divisive and offensive comments made regarding law enforcement. Chief Molloy accepted her apology and looks forward to addressing the community’s concerns through productive conversations.
"Dr. Klaiman is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about Abington Township Police Department’s community policing initiatives. We look forward to continuing these fruitful conversations and working together for the best interests of all Abington students and citizens."
Mitchell has offered up Salem Baptist’s new 11-acre campus for future community meetings where disparate groups can share a meal and get to know each other.
“In our community, there shouldn’t be this breakdown,” he said. “This will be an open zone of reconciliation and of love.”
And judging from the church functions I’ve attended, there will be a whole lot of good eating, too. That’s part of Mitchell’s strategy. He knows it’s easier to break down barriers and get to know strangers when you’re sitting at a table and sharing a meal.