LACEY – It was a battle against the board at the March 19 Lacey Board of Education meeting, and the question of the evening for the board members was: “Why can’t you answer our questions?”
An auditorium full of passionate, disappointed, disbelieving – and sometimes irate – members of the Lacey community spent the evening holding the board accountable for their actions, after the recent sentencing of three Lacey Township High School boys to four days in-school suspension.
After posting a photo of firearms meant for a shooting range, the three boys received suspension for the post as it showed firearms meant for use by the students. In the wake of tragic events like the Parkland shooting, school officials are taking school safety matters extremely seriously.
But this case poses a new question, at least for parents: At what point are these safety measures infringing on the civil rights of the students?
Amanda Buron, local parent and family friend to one of the suspended boys’ family, said that the boys were originally sentenced to five days in-school suspension but it was knocked down to four after outrage from the community surfaced through social media.
Buron noted that the boys were not even shown in the image that was circulating on social media.
“I want to be an advocate for those students,” she said, noting that the school should not have the right to discipline what students do outside of school, as it is a violation of their First and Second Amendment rights.
What began as a routine meeting of the board quickly became a battle between Lacey community members and a near-silent board. Board Attorney Christopher Supsie repeatedly informed the public that the board would not address or speak about matters of individual students, and intended to maintain confidentiality.
Before public comment began, Superintendent Craig Wigley spoke a few words about civility, quoting George Washington and the rules of civility.
“I grew up with respect for authority, and I adhere to the law and a disciplined environment,” said Wigley. “That is who I am and that is who I will be.”
Wigley urged the need for civility in a community that cares for and respects each other, making claims that the past week has brought insults and people “trolling” his family as a result of the recent disciplinary action against the students.
“I still remain, along with my colleagues, civil and loving to those who condemn without fact,” he added.
Supsie also addressed the reason for the disciplinary action taken as dictated by the student handbook for the high school.
“The district has been made aware that the language contained in the 2017-2018 Lacey Township High School Student Handbook has resulted in significant concerns regarding the rights of students within the district,” said Supsie.
According to Supsie, the language in the handbook aligns the school’s actions with the Safe Schools Initiative, which outlines a zero tolerance weapons policy, signaling the need for harsher measures.
Starting off public session was Republican Congressional candidate Mark McGovern. He’s running in District 2, which does not represent Lacey. “The email that you did send out…states plainly that no rights were violated and I’m here to tell you that you’re lying to us,” he said to the board.
“I would like to see the board admit that they made an error and they’ve done something they shouldn’t have,” said resident and parent Frank Horvath.
This desire was mirrored by many residents who got up to speak at the meeting, noting that they want the board to admit that their actions legitimately infringed on the rights of the students. Some even called for resignations of those “responsible.”
Also in attendance was Lanoka Harbor resident Ed Cardinal. Cardinal said his son is another student at Lacey Township High School that fell victim to the schools extreme safety measures.
“My son had a sticker on his truck and he couldn’t take his truck to school unless he took the sticker off. It was a picture of a gun,” he said. “We didn’t think it was right but we didn’t want him to get in trouble for it, so we took it off.”
He also noted that his son was later asked to remove his sweatshirt during school after a teacher referred to it as “a shooter sweatshirt.”
“Nobody wants another school shooting, but I think a lot of us are in the same understanding that having a sticker of a gun on your truck…is not going to create a school shooter,” he added.
On the legal side of things, Daniel Schmutter of Hartman & Winnicki PC and member of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs (ANJRPC) said that the board’s actions were a clear “violation of free speech.” He noted that local ANJRPC members “are gravely concerned about what we’ve learned over the last week over what has been happening in Lacey Township.”
Schmutter noted that the ANJRPC has recently sent the board two letters pertaining to each incident. The first one, dated March 15, was sent to the board regarding the violation of rights in the suspension of the three students for the social media post. The second letter discusses the violations of free speech with regard to the student’s truck sticker.
Dozens of residents came up to speak, expressing their concerns. Tensions grew high as more and more people asked for answers and the board members kept quiet.
One resident called the school a “left-wing propaganda machine.” Another labeled them as conspirators against legal rights, and some accused them of fear mongering. Buron even called them out for setting double standards for students and teachers.
Buron explained that a high school football coach has a photo of himself with a rifle as his profile photo on his social media. She insisted that there is no difference between non-threatening and recreational theme of the coach’s photo and the photo taken by the three boys.
“We don’t want him to take it down, we support him,” she said. Buron said just wants the same to be allowed for students without the fear of severe consequences.
From a united stance against the violation of student’s basic civil rights, the conversation slowly began to turn to the rights of parents and their ability to discipline their children.
“Where did we give up that right to be a parent,” said resident and parent Lewis Fiordimondo, concerned that the board’s ability to discipline the students both on and off campus impedes a parent’s right to discipline their own child.
Resident and parent Dale Hawk said: “I would like to see some amendment in those guidelines to stay out of my life unless my kid is hurting your school, our school.”
Many parents had something to say along those lines, worried that the district was taking too much control. Some even suggested hiring and titling a new position for handling social media complaints.
Despite the barrage of complaints brought forth from the public, not much common ground was found, as the board remained nearly silent throughout.