When the junior class leaders at Haddonfield Memorial High wanted to make a social statement, they selected Black Lives Matter as the charity for their spirit week fund-raiser.
Their choice touched off a furor in the predominantly white Camden County community after some parents and students complained. A second charity was suggested as a compromise but was rescinded a few days later after students pushed back.
“We’re trying to be on the right side of history,” said Jane Kinney, 16, a junior class delegate. “We thought this was right.”
In a letter to parents Thursday, the district apologized for the brouhaha and backed the students’ decision to raise funds only for Black Lives Matter. It acknowledged that “an attempt to appease a few became an insult to many in our community.”
The community of 11,000 residents is more than 90% white, 3.9% Latino, 2.4% Asian, and .6% Black.
During spirit week at Haddonfield High, each class sells school gear as a fund-raiser and designates a charity to receive the proceeds. The school celebrates the class that raises the most money.
The junior class chose racial equity as its theme and overwhelmingly selected the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter in early November, said Rachel Gould, the class adviser. The class also considered the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, she said.
“The students were shocked that it would even cause any concerns,” said principal Tammy McHale. “They’re activists. They want to make a difference.”
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Gould said controversy began this week when some parents raised concerns that Black Lives Matter is “politically affiliated” and that its selection violated school policy. She said she agreed to include a second charity, Feed My Starving Children, as a compromise.
”My hope was to bring peace,” said Gould, a health and physical education teacher. "In the end … I alienated all of our Black community. This has not been easy.”
Student council vice president Jada Eible Hargro, who is biracial, said she was disappointed by the backlash. She helped organize a BLM protest in Haddonfield after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer in May.
”It hurt to hear of this opposition,” said Hargro, 16, who is of African American and white descent.
The move also upset other students and members of the Haddonfield Antiracist Coalition, who began a social media campaign to support the fund-raiser. The coalition called for donations to support the BLM fund-raiser and a parent volunteered to go door-to-door picking up checks.
”I was disappointed to hear there was pushback,” said Jennifer Sheran, a member of the coalition.
The juniors initially agreed to add a second charity option to the fund-raiser but had a change of heart after a meeting Wednesday to discuss the controversy, said class president Lily Cheatham. They restored BLM as their sole designee, she said.
”It shows that we’re a community willing to better ourselves and learn from our mistakes,” Cheatham said. “In the end I feel that it’s a really good effort being made.”
Kinney said adding a second charity would have diluted the message about BLM. Cheatham believed some in the community were unaware that the donations are earmarked for BLM through the Movement Alliance Project in Philadelphia, a 501(c)3. Dec. 6 is the deadline for donations.
The district agreed, saying in its letter from Gould, McHale, and Superintendent Charles Klaus that adding a second charity inadvertently undermined the class’ choice and the importance of fund-raising toward social justice initiatives.
”I’m not backing down from anyone who is opposed to Black Lives Matter,” said Gould. “I’m very supportive of our kids.”
Spirit week typically lasts for a week and includes hall decorating and ends with a pep rally where the winner is announced. McHale said the school has not decided how it will be handled this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Shelley Zion, director of the Center for Access, Success, and Equity at Rowan University, who has led town-hall meetings in Haddonfield about race, said she was not surprised by the “resistance” against supporting BLM.
”It’s America and we’ve been racist for the last 400 years,” she said.
Haddonfield has had racial problems and launched programs in recent years to address diversity.
In 2018, the school district made national headlines after a boys’ lacrosse team member used a racial slur against a Black female athlete from another school. When no one would admit to making the slur or identify the player who did, the then-superintendent canceled the lacrosse season, ending a promising run for a team widely viewed as a contender for a state championship.