WEST ORANGE, NJ — After a local mother came before the West Orange Board of Education last week to address a dress code matter that made her daughter feel “discriminated against” at Liberty Middle School, Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone provided his own statement regarding how the district intends to handle this particular case and others like it in the future.
During the meeting, it came to the board’s attention that Liberty Middle School student Justice Cillo-Smith had received two dress code citations for a shirt she wore to class that read, “We’re all lesbians.” Cillo-Smith, who identifies as a lesbian, indicated to her mother that she “felt singled out” when she was reprimanded for being in violation of the following two bullet points written into the district’s dress code:
- 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.
- Any accessory that can be dangerous and/or disruptive to the learning environment.
Many community members stood by the student after news of this incident—one of whom noted that the quote is actually from a Broadway musical entitled “The Prom,” where the characters wear a shirt with the same phrase in support of a girl from Indiana who wants to bring another girl as her date to the prom.
It was also mentioned that another West Orange student did not experience any issues when she attended classes at Roosevelt Middle School wearing the same shirt the week prior.
On behalf of the board of education, which only learned of this incident when it came up during last week’s meeting, Cascone said he “felt it was imperative to provide a statement.”
“Being a father of three teenage girls, kids are extraordinarily enlightened,” he said. “They are sensitive and conscientious, [but] I think we can all agree that these matters of identity are all still relatively new in terms of how public entities are educating themselves about them; how we’re educating our staff about them.
“I think that the original motivation for the staff member’s position [is] based on this premise of a ‘disruption to the learning environment’—and, in reality, that’s the only thing that’s supported by the case law as it relates to First Amendment Student Rights of Expression.”
From the perspective of the Liberty Middle School faculty members, Cascone added that this premise raises the question of whether the shirt did, in fact, cause a disruption to the learning environment; and if it did cause a disruption, then why did it cause a disruption and should it have?
“The answer is no, it shouldn’t,” said Cascone. “We shouldn’t be concerned about creating disruption because it’s not disruption-worthy.”
Looking back on this situation, Cascone explained that he doesn’t “see it as an opportunity to condemn or to be punitive.”
“I think that we all recognize that it’s an opportunity to learn and to raise our understanding about [these] matters,” he said
Cascone explained that one positive thing that has come out of Cillo-Smith’s case is that the board now recognizes a need for more training.
“We’ve recognized that we need to put some additional trainings in place,” he said. “We’re scheduling some staff trainings at Liberty, and we’re also doing some student programming as well and that is all scheduled…
“That’s kind of how we’ve made sense of it as a district moving forward. In the end, I feel very comfortable and confident with the heart of our staff, but it’s more of a case of combining that genuine concern for kids with the training and understanding that enables them to navigate these situations a little bit more adeptly.”
In a more official statement to the community at large, Cascone also made the following remarks:
“I am a superintendent who strives to nurture an environment wherein all students and staff feel welcome, safe, comfortable and supported. When it comes to light that we have fallen short in our mission, what shall we do as a community? We shall not condemn, we shall not judge, we shall not cast out.
“I say, as a learning organization, let’s come together through honest and heartfelt dialogue, and let’s teach and grow. That is precisely the effort in which I lead.
“Constructive steps are already being taken on the part of the community, not to these ends, but better stated to these beginnings! The first step was taken on Monday night by a youngster, and we will—as I find we sometimes do—take our cue from the children for whom we care.”
He also noted that his “door and Email inbox remain open to feedback, expertise and reflections as West Orange continues to set an example of a community which refuses to be divided as it learns and evolves to keep pace with an ever-changing world.”
According to the superintendent, trainings will be scheduled within the next four-to-six weeks.