BEACHWOOD – Even as a Board of Education member has promised to be more careful with posts on his personal Facebook page, the board president has asked for his resignation.
The furor centers around Daniel Leonard, who represents Beachwood on the Toms River Board of Education. There were three reposts from April that were flagged.
One was a repost from a conservative podcaster disparaging Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. When reposting, Leonard commented “Terrorist…100%”
Another was a repost of a Fox News post about Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan. Leonard commented “My life would be complete if she/they die.”
A third was a repost of a meme showing a Barbie doll with a bruise and a hijab, referring to it as “Sharia Barbie.”
Joseph Nardini, the president of the Board of Education, denounced the social media posts and also asked for Leonard to step down.
“As Board President, it is my responsibility to consider, first and foremost, the well-being of the children of this district. The recent events with regard to the personal social media postings of Board member Leonard are distracting the Board from its mission and purpose. We must lead by example and set an example to our students and community that reflect our goals, ideals and vision for the future of this district. Due to these and other concerns, I have rescinded Mr. Leonard’s appointment to the Safety, Security, and Transportation Committee, effective immediately,” Nardini said in a statement. “Additionally, I am asking Mr. Leonard, for the sake of the students in this District, to consider the far-reaching effect of the events of the past few days and the effect upon the District and the students, and to consider tendering his resignation from his position as Board Member. We, as the Board, cannot act to remove a sitting Board Member based upon the allegations related to Mr. Leonard’s Facebook postings. However, Mr. Leonard is in a position to remove this distraction from the Board’s mission, and we implore him to consider the impact his continued service on the Board has had, and continues to have, upon the student body of the Toms River Regional School District.
“It is with a heavy heart that I make this statement. I greatly appreciate Mr. Leonard’s service to our country. I have had respect for his dedication to the work of the Board and his tireless service to this community. I also have a great respect for the right of free speech and Mr. Leonard’s individual right to express his personal opinion. However, when such personal opinions impinge upon the ability of this Board to act on the many pressing issues facing this District, and indeed become an obstruction to the Board’s message and duties, those opinions do not remain personal to Mr. Leonard but are opinions and statements which the Board must disavow as not reflective of the Board or this District,” Nardini said in his comments.
At the most recent Board of Education meeting, members of the public asked for him to resign. After the meeting, he met with Muslim members of the community and then issued a statement on his Facebook: “Although I will not apologize or resign over the mischaracterization of my ‘out of context posts’ – we did agree to disagree and I did reassure them that I understand the position that some of them felt the need to take. Sadly, my personal posts have obviously impacted the district and I will be more cautious going forward as we continue our fight against the loss in state aid – right or wrong, not everything is about me and my colleagues and I have worked way too hard to let this ruin our path to progress!”
He is referring to a state change in aid that will short the district millions of dollars a year. Many community members have been urging solidarity in combatting Trenton on these cuts.
Leonard continued: “This goes for everyone – Just because you have the right to say something does not necessarily mean that you should. There is a difference between being right and being effective! I stand against Sharia Law and I stand against those who would attempt to take away one’s freedom of speech through fear and intimidation! I will never back down, but I vow to be more articulate in my approach so that the message I am trying to convey as a private citizen is clear and precise and in no way reflects the position of the Board.”
He also stated that he is against Sharia Law, not Muslims. The comments regarding Congresswoman Tlaib were about her calling for a hunger strike to shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This came from a Fox News clip that was cut short, in which she did not actually urge hunger strikes; she only mentioned that other people were doing it. Leonard’s point was that if she wants to starve herself, then fine. But he did not call for violence against her.
After an initial news report about the issue was made public, Leonard addressed the issues on Facebook, stating that he served in the Middle East doing his part protecting Muslims from radicalized Islamic fundamentalists. Leonard retired from the Army National Guard as a Master Sergeant after 23 years.
On Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver’s official Facebook page, she wrote the following: “We are disheartened by the racist comments made by a school board member in Toms River. His hateful language is counter to the best interests of our students and does not represent our values. Governor Phil Murphy and I urge him to resign. The New Jersey Department of Education is also looking into this matter.”
Superintendent David Healy released a statement regarding the issue: “It is important for me to express that neither I nor this school district support or condone the content and spirit of these messages and the opinions they reflect. It is equally important for me to remind our community what our school district stands for. One need look no further than our mission and vision to understand that we value the respect and dignity of every single person we serve and employ; that we work tirelessly to ensure the safety of our students and staff – not only their physical safety, but their social and emotional well-being within a welcoming and nurturing environment; and that we embrace the diversity of our student body and firmly believe that such diversity is a critical mechanism for teaching and learning the enduring virtues of respect, tolerance, and love for one another. It is my sworn duty and distinct honor to uphold that mission and vision. Rest assured that, despite the recent attention given to these unfortunate messages, I will continue to ensure that Toms River Regional Schools embodies strong character, integrity, and the best that public education has to offer.”
The Toms River Board of Education is represented by attorney Stephan Leone. An attorney in his practice, Melanie Appleby, said that the board’s position is that Leonard’s statements on social media are his own, and do not represent the board.
Further, the attorney will advise the board to discuss the matter in executive session, she said. This is the portion of public meetings where the officials speak in private.
The board should conduct an investigation whether these statements violate the code of ethics, or statutes relating to bullying or discrimination, she said.
This might not be the only complaint that is being investigated.
Last year’s election was particularly contentious. One candidate, Christopher Raimann, accused Leonard of bullying and harassment. Raimann filed a complaint with the School Ethics Committee which is still pending. Leonard wasn’t running that year; he’s actually up for re-election this year.
The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ) was the first to call for him to step down in this recent issue.
“The bigoted, hateful and threatening social media posts shared by this elected board of education official serve to disqualify him for any position that has responsibility for the safety, security and well-being of New Jersey’s diverse student body,” said CAIR-NJ Executive Director James Sues. “The bigoted views expressed by Mr. Leonard have no place in an educational system that seeks to celebrate diversity and encourage students of all faiths and backgrounds to excel scholastically and to make positive contributions to our society. This is just a painful reminder of the extreme divisiveness that characterizes the current political climate at the national level.”
The CAIR press release that called for Leonard to step down defined themselves as a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization that has a goal to enhance understanding of Islam, protect civil rights, promote justice, and empower American Muslims. It also mentioned that they offer a series of guides to explain Muslim practices to public servants. It noted that they have seen “an unprecedented spike in bigotry targeting American Muslims, immigrants and members of other minority groups since the election of Donald Trump as president.”
Another civil rights group, Muslim Advocates, also called for him to step down.
“No individual who is responsible for governing the education of children should ever engage in hate speech, bigoted conspiracy theories and violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media. The harmful, ugly content that Daniel Patrick Leonard regularly posts to Facebook exposes him as someone wholly unfit to work with the diverse school children in Toms River and the state of New Jersey. Leonard’s views are completely inconsistent with the New Jersey School Boards Association’s mission to promote the achievement of ‘all students.’ He should resign or be removed from both offices. We’re asking New Jersey families of all backgrounds to urge the school boards association to remove him from his leadership position,” wrote Madihha Ahussain, the special counsel for Muslim Advocates.
She illustrated that Facebook posts have deeper impact than people think.
“Hateful, dehumanizing posts on social media like the kind shared by Mr. Leonard have serious consequences,” she said. “Rep. Ilhan Omar has already received death threats because people ignorantly and maliciously called her a terrorist and associated her with the 9/11 terror attacks – just as Mr. Leonard did in multiple Facebook posts. He also puts Rep. Rashida Tlaib in danger by effectively wishing that she would die. We have reported these posts to Facebook and await their determination if they are in violation of their content policies.”
In a statement issued on social media, 9th District Assembly hopeful Wayne Lewis said, “Toms River school board member Daniel Leonard had already publicly embarrassed Toms River when the public learned of his road rage incident that led to a car accident. Now, he has disgraced the very families he was elected to serve. He must resign from his position immediately. No one who makes light of bigotry, domestic violence, and the death of sitting congresswomen belongs in the professional world, let alone in a position of authority.”
This is in relation to an incident in which he was charged with reckless driving and failing to maintain a lane on July 6. Leonard has since disputed these charges, and has hired an attorney to represent him.
The police version of the incident is that Leonard was in his truck pursuing a driver in an Audi at a high rate of speed. He lost control of his vehicle, and wound up totaling it against a tree in an embankment off the intersection of Hooper Avenue and Bay Avenue.
The officer writing the report stated that Leonard was at fault due to his conflicting statements, his demeanor when speaking with police, and that the distance his truck travelled into the embankment was indicative of a high rate of speed.
Leonard’s version is that he was cut off by the Audi, whose driver kept hitting the brakes in front of him, and he was uncooperative because he had just been in a crash where his truck was totaled.