UNION, NJ – A long and sometimes contested Board of Education meeting began at the Administration Building Tuesday night, but moved to the high school’s library because of an overflow crowd of almost 100 people who came out to discuss the pending resolution regarding Wednesday’s planned student walk-out.
Board of Education President Vito Nufrio began the meeting by reading a letter he drafted to students about the march. “Your right to demonstrate or protest does have specific boundaries that are clearly detailed with this Resolution,” the letter read. “It is not intended to violate nor deter you from exercising your constitutional right to speak and assemble.” The letter went on to say “we would be violating our mandates by supporting or condoning any action which would result in leaving school premises.”
The letter said students were informed at a meeting last week with township officials, including Mayor Suzette Cavadas, and Police Director Daniel Zieser, Superintendent Gregory Tatum and High School Principal Corey Lowery, of all hazards and risk factors involved in conducting a march from the high school to town hall
Nufrio’s letter concluded, “I urge you and implore you to consider all facts and aspects of proceeding with your announced march to town hall and hopefully come to a sound, mature, and safe conclusion.”
Before public comment, Board member Jeff Monge said, “I think it’s very, very extremely important for the public to know that this Board didn’t put that resolution up. I think it’s very important to talk about the genesis of this resolution. I want the public to understand that this was Mr. Nufrio’s resolution.”
“I have the authority to present a resolution, just like anyone else,” said Nufrio.
Thirty students, parents and interested individuals stood before the Board with public comment, including student event organizers Sienna Bucu, Mekhi Rivers, Sabrina Prevost and Temi Adanlawo. “I will not stand idle while I wait for those entrusted not only to educate me, but to protect me, to act,” said Bucu. “I will be a part of the change.”
District Security Director Nick Ardito read an email from Police Director Zieser, which said there is a plan in place. “While we firmly believe this planned march to town hall is unsafe,” read the email, “the Union Police Department does not sanction this march in any way, shape or form. However, the Union Police Department will supply as much security as possible to ensure safe passage to and from town hall.”
Nufrio reiterated that it was the march to town hall, and not the school walk out, that the resolution was meant to address. He said the wording for the resolution, which refers to a walk-out, was taken from school boards and the Department of Education recommendations. “It was drafted in accordance with that language.”
One parent said, “these kids are asking their voices to be heard. For once, we are watching our youngsters stand up.” Another parent commented, “let them voice their concerns and be who they want to be. Show the children we care.”
Several students and parents were emotional during their comments, some crying while trying to express their feelings. “Why should I be scared to go to school,” said one student. Another student said through tears, "we just want to be heard for once."
Upon conclusion of all public comment, Nufrio asked for a recess for himself, the superintendent, Board attorney and Board secretary to meet. Some Board and audience members shouted and booed. “I don’t need a recess,” said Monge. A vote was conducted, with a recess winning 5-4.
During the recess, several heated discussions took place throughout the library, with small groups of parents and students engaged in loud, sometimes angry, discussion.
Upon reconvening, Nufrio said the letter he drafted to students is a “sufficient and sincere letter as to exactly my thoughts on the march. Not the demonstration.” Nufrio said in light of the fact that the resolution presents some curious wording, “I am going to, as I am authorized to do, remove the resolution.”
Tatum addressed the possibility of disciplinary action for students participating in the march. “Your first line of any discipline is your building principal. Mr. Lowery. Tomorrow morning, I will confer with him regarding any disciplinary issues that he may choose to institute if any. It’s his prerogative.”
Although the students presenting comments and most of the students in attendance were advocating for the march, one student, a 17-year old junior who did not want his name used, said he will not be participating in the walk out event. “Although this walk out is for a great cause, it can end up with the students in a dangerous situation. Most of the students participating are brave, new activists, but others may not know what they are getting themselves into. I do believe a protest is in order for this situation, but not in this way.”
Another student, a 17-year old senior, said she will be staying home from school on Wednesday. “There’s no point in them walking to town hall. The 17-minute walk out is great, but there’s no reason to go to town hall.”
Before the meeting, 17 year-old David said, "I feel like this is one of the few times students get to have their voices heard. If this is what the youth requested to express ourselves, the school should support us."