WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange Board of Education and its two new student liaisons applauded Liberty Middle School student Justice Cillo-Smith during Monday’s board meeting for her recent courage after receiving two dress code citations.
On Wednesday, September 25, Cillo-Smith was issued a dress code violation for a shirt she wore while attending her classes. After speaking with Principal Robert Klemt and student assistance counselor Heidi Brotzman, Cillo-Smith’s mother, Gwen Wu, discovered that her daughter was in violation of the “sixth and seventh dress code bullet points.”
According to Wu, the sixth bullet point cites “articles of clothing that contain references to illegal substances, sexual innuendos, inappropriate language and pictures, sayings or symbols that show affiliation to hate groups, gangs or demeaning messages directed towards any individual group or association.”
“I contested that it wasn’t derogatory,” said Wu. “Principal Klemt also said that it was (in violation of) the seventh bullet point, which is ‘any accessory that can be dangerous and/or disruptive to the learning environment.’ ”
Cillo-Smith, who identifies as a lesbian, had indicated to her mother that she “felt singled out,” according to Wu. She added that Klemt said he was “looking out for (Cillo-Smith’s) best interest” and that “because her shirt says ‘lesbians’ on it, he didn’t want her to be targeted.” Cillo-Smith, however, said that she felt discriminated against, according to her mother.
Wu also added that no issues were raised on Wednesday, October 2, when one of her daughter’s friends wore the same shirt.
“Coincidentally, it was the same day that Roosevelt (Middle School) held an LGBTQ assembly for the eighth-graders, which was presented by Garden State Equality,” said Wu. “My issue is how is this incident not perpetuating discrimination and intolerance? Why is there such a large distinction between the two middle schools — because there are both seventh- and eighth-graders in both schools? How does that help her feel safe?”
Because this was the first time he had heard of the situation, West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone said he could not provide a response.
“It did not come to my level; it went from the building principal right to the board,” said Cascone, adding that from a human standpoint, the district wants all children to “feel good and safe and comfortable,” but from a policy and procedural standpoint, he did not feel that it would be “prudent” to provide a comment.
“I promise you all that I will look into it — at the facts and the administrative rationale — and report back to the board on that,” he said.
In response to Cillo-Smith’s story, West Orange school board member Mark Robertson thanked her for being courageous despite being called out for the way she dressed.
“Thank you for your courage and continue to be proud of who you are because we are proud of who you are,” he said.
Board liaison Senay Dani, a West Orange High School student, commented on how the dress code is sometimes pointed toward certain students, especially when it comes to how certain teachers point out that inconspicuous items such as wearing a durag promotes gang violence.
“I don’t see as to how wearing a durag promotes gang violence or wearing things like what Justice has worn promotes anything, other than just teachers pointing it out,” said Dani. “I feel like from what (Wu) said when the teacher pointed it out, it made more of an issue than when she (Cillo-Smith) was (wearing the shirt) by herself.”
Fellow liaison Darlene Folas, who also acknowledged Cillo-Smith’s courage, reflected on her own experiences as a middle-schooler at Liberty when she had a run-in with a dress code violation along with some of her peers.
“Back then — three years ago — we were empowered to know that we had a voice, and I’m so grateful that you were empowered because this is a valid issue,” said Folas. “I’m grateful that you knew that you had us as a resource; that we’re here to serve you. And I want you to know that your complaint did not go to blind eyes or deaf ears because I’m here, and as a student liaison, I really empathize with your story.
“We’re here talking about how we want our teachers to be resources to promote mental health; to be allies to our students. But we can’t ignore how policies have individuals behind them; and with these individuals come those who make space for interpretations. And so, as a student, how do you not feel targeted when there are inconsistencies with the way you were treated (as compared) to another school?" she said.
Folas encouraged the board to “really consider this,” stating that these “interpersonal relations that our students have with their teachers are very important to things, such as mental health and the overall environment and climate in our classrooms.”