Should Princeton student have been suspended for this yearbook photo?
PRINCETON — Like other members of the Princeton High School Class of 2017, Jamaica Ponder submitted her senior collage picture for the yearbook back in January, counting down until graduation and getting ready to head to Northwestern University in the fall.
Six months later, the picture — which Ponder says inadvertently included artwork depicting a lynching and a partially visible racial slur — landed her in the principal's office with just a few days left in the school year. And she says Northwestern has gotten calls asking that her admission be revoked.
Ponder, who was suspended for one day as a result of the picture, said she had not heard of any issues after she submitted the picture until she was recently called to Principal Gary Snyder's office.
When she saw the painting of the people hanging in the background, she said she "profusely apologized" for the inclusion, which she said was "so unintentional."
Ponder, who is black, added, "There's a lot of really provocative art in my house."
In the picture, she and her friends are holding props, but she had not thought about what was in the background. The painting of the lynchings can be seen in the upper-left corner while the racial slur has some of the letters blocked by the other objects in the picture.
In a letter sent to parents and obtained by New Jersey 101.5, Snyder said the students involved in putting inappropriate items in the yearbook have been disciplined.
"A high school yearbook is a keepsake for all students and for the entire school community," he said. "The words and symbols that were used in the yearbook are neither appropriate or acceptable. While we encourage our students to have thoughtful dialogues and challenging academic discussions within safe spaces and with established ground rules, the use of historically offensive words and symbols in a yearbook crosses the boundaries of productive dialogue and into the realm of offensive speech that is not permissible within the domains of our school community."
Snyder said faculty and students who were involved in putting the yearbook together "have acknowledged shortcomings in their editorial review process that enabled the inappropriate content to slip through and have apologized for unknowingly publishing such content."
The school's principal also said that while there are issues to be addressed, the end of the year is still a time of celebration for the students.
"I know that many of our school community, including proud alumni, are troubled by the various reports of student conduct," he said. "I am equally upset and concerned, and yet I also have the privilege of seeing the courageous and positive efforts of students and faculty each day who are working tirelessly to teach, learn, and promote civility and understanding that is so very much needed in our town and nation."
Ponder said with graduation nearing she never intended for her picture in the yearbook to be divisive for the school, and not outside its walls, either.
"People are so venomously angry," she said. "And they're angry at me, and they're angry at the school, which I think is really counter-intuitive."
Ponder made headlines last year when she exposed fellow students who had played a “Jews vs. Nazi”-themed beer pong game in a private home.
A group of students protested Ponder's suspension Monday. A petition from the students calls for the suspension to be erased from her permanent record. The petition also asks administrators and faculty to educate themselves on how profanity is used by different racial and ethnic groups.
Rhinold Ponder and Michele Tuck-Ponder, a former township mayor, do not agree with their daughter's suspension and plan to appeal to Princeton's civil rights commission.
"This is a young black lady who is bringing up issues that many people in Princeton don't want to discuss. There are frictions in this town that people don't want revealed. They figure the best move is to shut her down and send a message to the other kids to shut up, or you will be suspended," Rhinold Ponder said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com