Controversial Comments at Board of Education Meeting
Thursday’s Board of Education meeting started at 5:30 in Executive Session. This is a closed-to-the-public session where privileged information is discussed.
The public meeting started shortly after 7 pm with public recognition. Members of the community are invited to address the Board on issues pertaining to the school district and several did, including three of the candidates for the open seats in next month’s election.
One speaker, Anthony DiSalvo, who spoke on the same issue at the last meeting, took issue with district Policy 5756. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally-funded education programs and activities and this state policy provides guidance to local districts on protecting the rights of transgender students.
DiSalvo said that he, “has nothing against the LGBTQ community” but specifically opposes this line in the policy - “There is no affirmative duty for any school district staff member to notify a student’s parent of the student’s gender identity or expression.” The guidance is meant to ensure a “safe and supportive” atmosphere at school and releases staff from a duty to disclose a child’s transgender status if the child does not wish it to be shared with their family. It does not prevent a staff member from disclosing; it simply fails to obligate them to do so.
The ACLU said on the issue, “This year, dozens of proposed bills would require schools to out trans students against their will, regardless of any harmful consequences at school or at home. These forced outing bills claim to protect parents’ rights, but they do no such thing. Instead, these bills endanger trans students, who have the right not to be outed and to be treated with dignity and respect at school.”
Another speaker, who identified himself as an Iranian-American, started by sharing that he didn’t think that politics should be discussed at Board of Education meetings, citing the great number of matters pertaining directly to the district that need to be covered. He asked for a rule that would limit speech to those matters that deal with children’s education. However, since members of the board have brought up political issues in the past, he wanted to address the current situation in the Middle East. “I want peace for all innocent civilians,” he said, and suggested that we “reach out to other community leaders to wish condolences for their tragic losses” in an effort to promote peace and prevent a tragedy here in Clifton.
He then addressed Commissioner Fahim Abedrabbo directly, saying that since Abedrabbo has brought up the “Palestinian cause” several times before at meetings, it was a fair question. “I’d like to know where you stand,” he said, “because I won’t feel safe sending my children to school with a board member who thinks what Hamas did is justified for the cause.” He asked, “Do you believe what Hamas did was immoral?”
Though only a few minutes into his allowed five, Mark Tabakin, the Board attorney stopped him, saying, “Please stop. You’re not going to be directing questions to specific board members. We are not going to be answering politically-charged issues with you. It has nothing to do with the business at hand of this Board of Education.”
This interruption came as a surprise to some, who have witnessed the Board attorneys sit quietly for years while members of the public delivered comments that were derogatory, accusatory, and even bigoted. The speaker pivoted, asking that the Board adopt a policy to prevent all speech - including that of its commissioners - from crossing this line. “We’ll take it under advisement,” Tabakin said.
During her comments later in the meeting, Commissioner Judy Bassford questioned the attorney’s decision to interrupt a speaker during public comments. She asked that they discuss this apparent infringement on the speaker’s First Amendment right to free speech at a public meeting. “We should have let that man speak,” she said.
Tabakin responded, explaining that public comments were intended for the public to address matters of interest to the Board and were not meant to be a back-and-forth or to be a platform for inflammatory remarks against a particular person. “If it crosses a line,” he said, “my role is to protect the sanctity of this meeting.” He acknowledged that the line was a subjective one and if the attorney views the speech as disruptive to the business of the BOE, he or she may stop it.
You can read what the New Jersey School Boards Association has to say on the matter here.
As it does each month, the Board presented certificates of recognition to the four CHS students of the month. For October they were: Freshman - Sophia Zeisel, Sophomore - Judah Portillo-Del Valle, Junior - Juna Crawford, and Senior - Nicco Valencia.
The BOE also recognized several distinguished employees of the month, a new initiative to recognize the district’s outstanding staff: Joe Schmidt, a floating head district custodian, William Terrill (mostly known as Bill), who is the Head Custodian at School 12, John Brooks, School Security Specialist at WWMS, and Jeffrey Horn, the Network Coordinator Web Master at CHS. “To be recognized is truly an honor,” Dr. Robertozzi said, saying that there were 101 nominations for this first month.
Commissioner Fahim Abedrabbo read the district’s resolution for Italian Heritage Month:
WHEREAS, Italian and Italian-American Heritage Month is an appropriate time to recognize the enormous contributions the Italian and Italian-American people have made to this country and the world throughout our history, including generals, admirals, doctors, philosophers, statesmen, musicians, athletes, and Nobel laureates;
WHEREAS, Italian and Italian-American Heritage Month is held to salute the Italian and Italian-American community and to exhibit appreciation for their culture and their heritage that have immeasurably enriched the lives of the people of this Nation and the world;
WHEREAS, the strength and success of the United States, the vitality of our communities, and the effectiveness of our American society depend, in great measure, upon the distinctive and sterling qualities demonstrated by people of diverse races, heritages, and ethnicities, exemplified by members of the Italian and Italian-American community, who share with us their rich and unique heritage; and
WHEREAS, it is fitting and proper that October of each year be observed as Italian and Italian-American Heritage Month throughout the United States;
RESOLVED, that in order to recognize the enormous contributions Italian and Italian-American people have made to this country and the world throughout our history, the Clifton Board of Education urges the district to observe the month with appropriate events and activities.
During his comments, President Jim Smith implored the community to come out and share some of the positives that are happening in the district. He spoke for several minutes about the many district accomplishments and the hard work of the staff, clearly frustrated by what he characterized as negative comments from the public. “I would think that people would be coming and saying, ‘These are the great things Clifton is doing.’”
Under new business, the Board attorney read a resolution regarding a grievance that was discussed in Executive Session. The BOE denied the grievance but details of the issue were not shared publicly. The Board then retired to a second Executive Session and following that, they returned to close the public meeting.