Editor's Note: An email was sent to all graduates and their families on Tuesday, July 7, inviting them to an in person graduation to be held July 23 and/or July 24, and requesting information on guests to be invited and which graduates will be attending.
BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With plans finally being set for an in-person graduation, but rumors swirling for weeks prior, a number of Bridgewater-Raritan High School seniors gathered in the parking lot next to Basilone Field after the airing of the virtual graduation June 23 in response to growing frustrations over a lack of communication from the district.
A number of parents have formed a parent committee, and have been working since April to help the students get some answers regarding the fate of their senior events and class monies.
And with school over for the year, and the virtual graduation over, students gathered to protest a lack of a concrete plan for an in-person graduation.
As of July 6, Gov. Phil Murphy has mandated that gatherings of 500 outside are permitted, and in-person graduations can be held, so long as the number of people does not exceed that limit.
The graduating class from Bridgewater-Raritan High School stands at more than 700 students.
Discussions have been ongoing about the potential for an in-person graduation, or set of graduation ceremonies.
Many have been unhappy with the lack of response and direction from the district.
“Sadly, during this unprecedented time of uncertainty and question, the BRHS school administration chose to ‘go silent’ and offer no communication to these seniors and their families – not even comforting words of solace or encouragement – until May 15,” said parent Christine Juechter in a letter.
In addition, Juechter and the other parents in the group have expressed concern about the discussion and decisions made regarding Class of 2020 fundraising proceeds (totaling $15,000) and Project Graduation funds (totaling $16,500). She said in a letter that they have tried to communicate with the high school principal, superintendent and board of education members, but have not had success in getting the answers they are seeking.
“The gathering of seniors on the BRHS campus was in response to their growing frustration toward not only their own school administration’s lack of support and communication, but the increasingly contradictory mandates being handed down by the governor regarding public gatherings,” she said. “For example, large groups can gather at the beach, yet other outdoor gatherings were limited to 25 people.”
In addition, Juechter said, students have participated in a number of large protests, and so they wondered why they couldn’t do the same to speak out against the administration not moving quickly enough to allow them to graduate together, on the field.
“As a result of this thought, the students decided to leverage social media to contact their fellow senior classmates with the objective of meeting around 8 p.m. at the high school senior parking lot to all be together to make noise at 8:20 p.m.,” she said.
Juechter said the message about the planned protest moved through the class, and some parents expressed concern through Facebook and by contacting the superintendent and administration. “A resulting email was sent by (former) Superintendent Russell Lazovick with provocations related to what is a ‘worthy protest,’ police involvement and a charge that the open-air campus of the high school was ‘private property’ and anyone gathering would be considered trespassing,” she said. “Despite these outrageous threats, lies and scare tactics, roughly 80 seniors did gather as intended in their caps and gowns, spent about an hour together with the police and fire departments on hand to add their sirens to the celebration noise at 8:20 p.m., and added a positive memory to this terrible year.”
In a letter from the district published just before graduation, administration said they are continuing to plan possible ways to support an in-person graduation ceremony in July. BRHS principal Charles Ezell and his team met with administrators at the ballpark in mid June to discuss the possibility of using the venue.
But, the letter said, there was concern about misinformation circulating through social media. The posts had indicated the possibility of a protest on district property following the virtual graduation.
“This district does not condone what has been published, and we have not approved any such activity,” the letter said. “I have been in touch with the Bridgewater Chief of Police and the mayors of both Bridgewater and Raritan. They do not endorse or condone these actions. All school facilities are currently closed due to the pandemic and any unauthorized use of our facilities is, at a minimum, trespassing.”
The letter from the district raised concerns about a protest on school property, and said that although there had been a request for a protest made to Bridgewater police, it was wrong to suggest that the police, township or district approved of it.
“Peaceful, meaningful protests are carried out in public spaces or with the permission of the property owner,” the letter said. “School property is private property and the school district does not approve the use of our facilities for this type of event at this time.”
“This is not because the district does not support our graduates,” the letter added. “It is because, at this time, regardless of what others choose to do, gatherings on this scale are simply not safe. The district cannot assume the liability for an event that puts our students, and the larger community, at further risk.”
Aside from the graduation issue, Juechter said there is still a lot of information missing about money paid for senior events that had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
First, she said, the class officers met with the principal in early May to determine how class monies could be spent, but there was no solicitation of any kind by the school administration from the rest of the students.
Then, Juechter said, students were told there would be no prom, and they had to decide how to spend their class money. A survey was sent to the seniors, but the results have never been made public.
In addition, Juechter said, they have received conflicting information from the school administration and the Project Graduation administration about monies earmarked for the end-of-year senior class event.
“While this should normally include proceeds from multiple school fundraising activities led by Project Graduation during the seniors’ four years at the high school, we are being told the Class of 2020 did not earn any fundraising monies,” she said. “Yet it was confirmed that $16,500 was paid as a deposit to secure the venue for the scheduled Class of 2020 event in June.”
Juechter said the deposit was rolled over to secure the Class of 2021’s event when it was canceled in April, but Lazovick had since said the funds were reimbursed back to the Class of 2020.
In May, Juechter said, the parent committee provided the school district with several well-researched and detailed plans for an in-person graduation, including an offer secured from Steve Kalafer for the use of TD Bank Ballpark.
The district has since said they have been in talks with the ballpark for potentially holding the graduation there, and, although official word has not been given yet, they have discussed the potential for holding graduations on July 22 and July 23.
Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench said the township administration has worked closely with the school district and parents with regard to any potential graduation ceremonies.
“We have on numerous occasions notified the district that the township was willing to be an active participant and help to facilitate whatever was needed to have an in-person graduation this year,” he said.
To that end, Moench said, he respects the students’ rights to peacefully gather and protest the governor’s actions by celebrating in person at the high school.
“However, Chief (Paul) Payne and I do not have the power to grant access to the site or permission to be on the premises, that is up to the school district to grant or deny,” he said. “If the event was held on property controlled by the township, the situation may be different, but the school district has exclusive control over their own property.”
Moench said he was actually at the municipal building on the evening of graduation for a planning board meeting, and heard the honks of car horns coming from the parking lot of the high school.
“At the conclusion of the meeting, I walked over to the high school where a few dozen graduates were peacefully gathering to celebrate their graduation,” he said. “Chief Payne had a couple of his officers there to ensure everyone’s safety, and I was able to congratulate a few of the graduating seniors in person.”
At the end of the day though, Moench said, the township and police could not grant permission for a protest like this.
“If the school district calls for police support to break up any gathering, the police will respond as appropriate and use their discretion under the law to determine what is the appropriate action to take based upon the situation presented,” he said.
The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.