Student suspended over yearbook photo with provocative painting

A graduating senior at a New Jersey high school was suspended over what administrators described as a “racist” photo she submitted to the yearbook.

As part of the Princeton High School yearbook’s senior collage, Jamaica Ponder submitted a photo of herself and 16 friends, which included artwork in the background that contained the n-word and images of lynchings. The n-word in the painting is not immediately recognizable, with the ‘N’ and the ‘E’ obscured by people in the photo. The other painting appears in the upper left corner of the photo, partially blocked by a person.

The artwork belongs to her father, Ponder wrote in an online magazine she edits. While submitting a photo containing a racial slur was an oversight, she wrote, she took pride in that “[her] father’s art served its purpose without [her] even noticing.”

She also said she feels the suspension was retaliatory, as she is a black student who was outspoken about racism at her school and “had to be silenced.”

“It’s frustrating to me to watch the school deliberately refuse to be more transparent and address its multitude of issues,” Ponder told Newsworks. “The problem isn’t that they aren’t perfect; the problem is that they aren’t doing anything to make themselves better. Rather, they quite literally hide behind me and litter the airways with irrelevant and frequently flawed accusations and reasonings for why things happen.”

About 15 students protested Ponder’s suspension Monday afternoon and created a petition that demanded PHS Principal Gary Snyder remove the suspension from Ponder’s permanent record, as well as require all administrators and faculty to educate themselves on how profanity is used by different racial and ethnic groups.

The staff addressed publishing the photo in a Facebook post:

To the PHS Community:

The goal of this year’s yearbook was to highlight “the way we connect,” to both represent and foster the unity of our school community as well as the diversity within it. However, after distributing the 2017 Prince this past Wednesday, we realized we fell short of our goal—we have been notified of several issues in this year’s book.

In addition to the usual small publication errors, some hurtful content was published. It has been brought to our attention that there are senior collages that included insensitive, racist, jarring, provocative content that should not have been printed. The purpose of collages has always been to allow students to own a personal space for celebrating their memories and friendships. We are also aware that there are errors outside of the senior collages, some of which were hurtful. Perpetuating racism or injustice of any kind is never okay. We apologize for not catching these offenses. We would never knowingly publish such content.

We recognize that the copyediting of our book needs to be strengthened and feel responsible for any pain caused. When the book we produce creates hurtful consequences—as it has—we deeply and sincerely apologize, take full responsibility, and commit to action steps that improve our future publications. We want our school’s yearbook to reflect our necessary community efforts toward social justice for all marginalized groups, including race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and religion.

The post also included a link to a feedback form, which encouraged the community to comment on “the past, present, and future” of the yearbook. The staff wrote the note when it became aware of “these images and unintentional mistakes,” Diana Lygas, the yearbook adviser, said in an email. She said action steps are being taken to improve next year’s volume, including committing to diversifying their yearbook staff through actively recruiting students from different backgrounds.

Ponder’s parents, who are both lawyers, have asked for the suspension to be rescinded and told CNN that they plan to appeal to the borough’s civil rights commission to investigate the high school for its disciplinary practices, which the Ponders feel disproportionately impact students of color.

“I think the unintentional presence of the art to be perfectly reflective of my existence and it intrigues me that it is so scary to people,” Ponder wrote. “My history, which is portrayed here with artistic intent, consistently intermingles with the vibrancy of my day-to-day life. I do not pick and choose when it matters to me.”