HACKENSACK, N.J. — After falling victim to harassment at her school, one Hackensack fifth-grader is blowing the whistle on abuse.
When 10-year-old Giada Oates is approached by a fellow student in the hallway at Hackensack Middle School who spews vulgarities at her, or goes so far as to grab her, she makes like a police officer, reaching for the yellow plastic whistle around her neck, and -- with a brief shrill -- alerts the offender to stop their inappropriate behavior at once.
“We teach her all about empowerment and women safety,” says Giada’s mother, Toni. “She has always had this sense of advocating for herself in the household.”
If only Giada felt as safe inside the walls of her own school. On Monday, December 19, Toni told the Hackensack Board of Education that on the week prior, Giada was on her way to audition for the school play when she was approached by a classmate who seized her from behind, placed her in a choke hold, and told her she was going to “die a silent death.” What followed was a text message to her mother reading:
“Mommy, I want to go another school. I feel unsafe walking in the hallways and classrooms. Did you hear BLANK choked me? I don’t feel safe in this school. Wish me good luck on my auditions.”
With Giada by her side with her sister Nina, Toni explained to the board that Monday evening that middle school personnel and the Hackensack Police Department responded swiftly, and that Gigi's friends and teammates also attested to having experienced “gripping” -- a word Toni described as “touching young women inappropriately from behind” -- from the same offender who was not named.
“These young women conveyed that they are scared,” said Toni.
Since the incident, Toni said both her daughters wear a whistle around her neck to school and handed out 36 whistles to classmates that day and will be ordering more.
“Why do our children need to wear whistles to school to feel safe?” Asked Toni to the board.
The mother of three said the same young man who choked her daughter had allegedly demonstrated acts of physical aggression against her son at Fairmont Elementary School circa 2014. While the Oates requested that a Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) investigation be initiated on the boy, Toni told the board that Fairmont could not provide anything in writing at the time.
Toni explained that had the school board handled the investigation on the boy back in 2014, the current situation at the school could have been averted.
“We now believe that Fairmont failed to launch the investigation,” said Toni to the board. “If Fairmont followed the letter of the law, this young man would have received all necessary therapeutic intervention. Instead, it appears it was swept under the rug.”
Toni's husband Michael, who is a sports coach and a longtime firefighter in the city, expressed his adoration for the town and the “phenomenal” education Hackensack students receive.
“As a parent, you have a choice to make. Do you run, go somewhere else, pray it doesn’t happen somewhere else? Or do you stay and make it better?” he said to the board. “We are going to choose to stay here and make it better. We don’t run and hide. We stay and fight.”
Toni concurred, stating that her family holds the board accountable for their alleged inaction in handling the situation when it first arose.
“John F. Kennedy once said, ‘There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction,’” said Toni. “This district’s comfortable inaction has created an environment today where parents’ are deceived, children aren’t safe, and placed at risk every day in our schools despite best efforts made by our teachers.”
She continued, “When it comes to the safety of our children, their friends, classmates and teammates, we will continue to advocate for their safety.”
Members of the board said they would “put their shoulders to the wheel” on the issue, and that it would be taken care of “eventually.”
“We take your comments very seriously,” said Board President Lancelot Powell. “We will work together to make things better. It’s important you come here to tell us what’s happening. We don’t know. Do our kids deserve better? Two-hundred percent yes. And they will get better. That's why we’re here.”
“We’re going to work through this process together I can assure you of that,” said Superintendent Robert Sanchez.