MONTCLAIR, NJ - In response to concerns raised by parents and activists regarding police presence at Board meetings, Montclair Police officials have responded to offer insight.
During the Wednesday, February 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting, Montclair Board of Education members invited a uniformed police officer to the meeting. Though residents and activists have stated that it was an unusual practice, tensions mounted when the officer approached the podium and stood behind the speaker.
Kellia Sweatt, who is President of the National Independent Black Parent Association (NIBPA) approached the podium, as she has done during the past few meetings, and continued to call for the resignation or termination of Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker after he was alleged to have made statements regarding maintaining employment of racist teachers.
During prior Board meetings, Sweatt and others have alleged that Parker, in an October NAACP meeting, stated, “I know this will be controversial, but I do not care if a teacher is racist, so long as it doesn’t interrupt the instruction.” He was then invited to a second NAACP meeting to explain his commentary, in which he made additional remarks that some also found offensive.
Parker has since issued a public apology for his statements and has maintained that he was "misunderstood."
In reviewing the footage of the Feb 19 Board meeting, at the at about '2:31:15' mark, Officer Pierre Falaise sheepishly walked up behind the speaker, Sweatt, as she wrapped up her speech. At one point, he lightly tapped the podium. Once she realized that he was standing behind her and was there for her, she walked back to the podium and expressed her outrage.
As she concluded, the officer stepped back and allowed her to conclude her statements. As Sweatt walked back to her seat, Falaise followed closely behind her. As seen in this cell phone footage, he stopped midway, but then walked over to where she was seated. Once she sat back down, Falaise began speaking with her privately, as people gathered around recording and taking pictures.
Sweatt and other residents have stated that this was the first time they have seen a uniformed officer working, in an official capacity, during a Board meeting. Though officers have been seen in the audience at past meetings, they also couldn't recall seeing an officer ever approach a speaker.
Sweatt, who has been attending the Board meetings for nearly 15 years, stated, “This is the first time a uniformed police officer has ever attended a meeting, and was working.”
Residents and concerned activists maintain that police were not even involved, when there were nearly 200 passionate residents in attendance protesting PARCC. The past PARCC meetings had become tense, at times and lasted well beyond midnight, as residents made their voices heard.
Montclair Police officials have now responded to requests for information on the frequency of an officer's attendance during Montclair Board of Education meetings, saying, "Det. Falaise is the School Resource Officer and a resident of Montclair. He has attended many board meetings in the past, however he is usually not in uniform."
It was unclear whether he was attending in his official capacity or not.
According to multiple conversations with unnamed official sources, a conversation had taken place prior to the February 19 meeting with Interim Superintendent Parker, in which the Board decided to have an officer attend the meeting as a safety precaution. Contrary to rumors, the unnamed sources stated that there had not been any official threat made or incident occur to prompt this response.
Both Parker and the officer present at the meeting, declined a statement. Parker spoke, at length, off-the-record, but stopped short of giving an official explanation.
Deputy Chief Wilhelm Young stated, "When he approached Ms. Sweat, at the end of her speaking time, he was simply asking her if she or someone she spoke of needed police assistance."
Sweatt stated that when she turned around and saw that the police officer, armed with a firearm, was standing behind her, she was “...surprised, alarmed and felt both threatened and disgusted at the act of trying to criminalize me at the podium and then following me around and watching my every move.”
Young added, "No one was asked to leave, nor was anyone asked to sit down. Ms. Sweat refused to speak to him at the time he initially approached her, however, she did speak to him at the end of the meeting."
Sweatt added, ” You never know how these types of things can turn out. You never know what the reaction from the police may be. It is always stressful and fearful when you see a police officer approach a black woman, or any woman, cause you never know how these things may turn out.”
Young continued, "Many in that group, including Ms. Sweat have known Det. Falaise for many years and are well acquainted with him. I have not received any complaints from others in attendance of Detective Falaise being an intimidating presence at this, or any other meetings."
Sweatt stated, “More and more black parents, concerned citizens and activists are showing up for these meetings because of the blatant racism that goes on in our educational system."
During the February 5, 2020, Board Meeting, the Board introduced another barrier for the parents, whereas parents were asked to state their names and addresses on the microphone before speaking.
Parents and residents have stated that they felt this was another tactic or barrier to intimate black parents because a lot of people are skeptical of putting their information on record. They have expressed concern that members of the community, who may not agree with their views, may show up at their homes, their children may be retaliated against, and/or police may begin to harass them.
"This particular Board is creating additional barriers. Racism is about the denial of access and I think this speaks to the clear demonstration of their perpetual systematic forms of racism. This board does not feel very welcoming to African-American people and other people, as well. Having a police presence shows us that they do not want us here and they want to criminalize anyone who speaks out against racial policies,” Sweatt continued.
Police leaders were questioned regarding the frequency of attendance during the meetings and could not provide insight into whether or when officers have been asked to attend any prior Board meetings.
Young continued, "I have no records regarding the frequency of officers being present at BOE meeting prior to Det. Falaise’s assignment as the Department’s SRO, but am certain that it has occurred upon occasion in the past."
Sweatt concluded earlier statements saying, “In recent days, under the leadership of Nathan Parker, and under the leadership of the current board, they have represented the epitome of black oppression. Rules have changed. New and additional barriers have been incorporated. Disregard and disrespect to speakers have been shown regularly. Removal of structural protective factors for our children has taken place. And the environment has definitely been hostile."
She continued, "The only thing people have witnessed the NIBPA doing at the board meetings is resisting racism. Nothing we have ever done should have required a police officer to be present, unless your intention is to intimate black parents from showing up at these meetings.”
The Montclair Police Department has a Community Policing initiative, in which they purposely make efforts to create positive relationships with community members and especially those of color. They host frequent initiatives to build relationships with residents. The Montclair Police Department maintains that they strive to maintain the positive relationships they have built over the years.
Young concluded, "The Montclair Police Department continues to strive to be a positive influence within all aspects of the community and in no fashion seeks to be perceived as an intimidating, coercive, or otherwise negative presence."
NOTE: While Dr. Parker spoke at length to the reporter for a prior article, he maintained that it was off-the-record and declined to comment on the reasoning for inviting an officer to the meeting. Instead, he wanted to clarify that he believes his alleged statements made during the Montclair NAACP meeting, that has sparked outrage, have been misunderstood. He did not elaborate further.