NJ high school student suspended for submitting yearbook photo with “N-word” in background
PRINCETON, N.J. (CNN) — A yearbook photo with the N-word in the background led to suspension for a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey.
Jamaica Ponder was suspended Friday, just days before her graduation, after administrators noticed the content in a photo she submitted to the yearbook in January.
She and a group of friends posed in the basement of her house for her senior collage. In the background, two pieces of her father’s artwork appear.
One piece contains the N-word, with only the letters I-G-G visible in the photo. In the upper left-hand corner of the photo, another piece of artwork depicts black people being lynched.
“It was not my intention to have this imagery or the part of the N-word in the yearbook,” Ponder told CNN.
Ponder said that when she took the photo, she showed it to her parents and made it her cover photo on Facebook. She didn’t notice the imagery in the background until Princeton High School Principal Gary Snyder called her into a meeting, she said.
After her initial conversation with the principal regarding the photo, she apologized and the two had a long conversation, Ponder said.
Later that night, she wrote a post in Multi Magazine, an online magazine that she runs, titled “The N***** in the Yearbook.”
“I then think of the fact that n***** was in my senior collage and not someone else’s,” Ponder wrote on June 8. “I wonder what the repercussions would be for a white or Hispanic or Asian kid if they had made the same oversight as myself. If they would be treated differently for the same infractions due to their complexion.”
The next day, Ponder was called back to the principal’s office and suspended, she said.
In a statement to CNN, Snyder said, “As the principal of Princeton High School, I want to state that we unequivocally oppose the use of offensive language, images and symbols. I also want to emphasize that we do not punish students for speaking out against racism, biases and other injustices. Just the opposite, we hope all of our students will take a stand against injustice and we applaud those students who actively do so.”
Ponder was not the only student disciplined for images in the yearbook. Another student submitted a collage of Nazi soldiers marching, but digitally altered his friends’ heads over posters bearing swastikas, Ponder said. Ponder and that student were given the same one-day suspension.
Snyder sent a letter to parents apologizing for “insensitive, offensive and provocative words and symbols of racial bias, bigotry and anti-Semitism” that were included in the yearbook.
“A high school yearbook is a keepsake for all students and for the entire school community. The words and symbols that were used in the yearbook are neither appropriate or acceptable,” Snyder said in the email.
Ponder’s parents, Rhinold and Michele Ponder, both attorneys, are appealing the school’s decision. They have filed an appeal with the superintendent of schools and plan to file a complaint with the Princeton Civil Rights Commission.
“The appeal might not be over by the time she graduates, but my concern is not for Jamaica,” Rhinold Ponder said. “My concern is that there are students coming behind her, and if they treated a child with two lawyer parents this way based on their discretion, then they certainly are going to treat others this way.”
A small group of students hosted a sit-in at the principal’s office on Friday after Ponder was suspended. About 20 students protested Monday when Ponder wasn’t at school, wearing signs on their shirts that said “Suspend Me,” Ponder said.
“While we encourage our students to have thoughtful dialogues and challenging academic discussions about historically offensive words, images and symbols, we strive to do so within safe spaces of classroom discussions and with established ground rules,” Snyder said in a statement to CNN. “The yearbook does not provide the context for these words and images, nor does it allow for the honest, back-and-forth discussion that is essential in productively addressing complex and sensitive issues.”
Ponder plans to graduate on June 21, and she will attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the fall.
None of the students or teachers who worked on the yearbook’s production and publication was disciplined, Ponder said.