WESTFIELD, NJ — The Westfield Board of Education may be changing its policies for assembly speakers after a student-requested Black History Month speech touched a nerve with some parents and at least one board member with his candid political remarks.
Policy Committee Chairman Brendan Galligan said at Tuesday’s school board meeting that following a “robust discussion” at the previous board session, the subcommittee will discuss suggested policy changes when it meets May 11.
The discussion among board members happened on April 6 when, after several parents complained that a speech by athlete and Westfield High School alumnus Chris Campbell was extreme, board member Tara Oporto asked for a response to their remarks and a review of the policies. Galligan said the policy committee would follow up.
Campbell, who students had requested to speak at the virtual assembly, excelled in wrestling at Westfield High School and went on to win a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
He is also the winner of a gold medal at the 1981 World Wrestling Championships and a silver medal at the 1990 World Wrestling Championships. He currently practices law in California and serves on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international group of judges and attorneys who hear Olympic-related disputes.
In the assembly, Campbell discussed his experiences ranging from being held at gunpoint by a police officer at the Seaside boardwalk in his youth to being denied jobs and opportunities due to racial discrimination. Campbell, who described himself in the speech as someone who “loved to poke the bear” growing up, also shared his personal political views and used a contested description to characterize the treatment of Palestinian people in Israel.
Campbell’s prepared remarks contain the use of the term “apartheid state” in reference to Israel and statements such as “The world laughs at how stupid the U.S. is by not having a national health care system.”
“I didn’t want to sugar coat it,” Campbell said in a phone interview. “I didn’t want to lie to the students.”
Reviewing his remarks during the interview with TAPinto Westfield, Campbell noted their controversial nature in some instances.
“There’s a lot of stuff that can piss people off in this thing,” he said. “But I did want to give students a feel for what racism means, that it is so pervasive, and that it should not be tolerated in any way.”
In his speech, he discussed opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Anyone who calls Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization is by definition a white supremacist dedicated to the genocide of my people,” Campbell said. “There is no wiggle room there.”
Between the two meetings, four parents spoke before the board in objection to the speech, some asking about the process for vetting speakers for school assemblies.
When requesting the policy change on April 6, Oporto said, “we can’t have this occur again, where we get into a situation where … somebody comes in with very extreme views and presents them as facts.”
But board members Leila Morelli and Sahar Aziz cautioned that the control over what a non-employee speaker says is always limited. Robert Garrison, a board member, said he is not sure the district did anything wrong in this instance.
Aziz, who is a law professor, Chancellor's Social Justice Scholar and Middle East and legal studies scholar at Rutgers University Law School, said she hopes no one will see the situation as a reason to stifle future Black History Month events that come from the African American perspective.
Instead, she said the district and parents should embrace it as a learning opportunity.
“The biggest disservice we can do to our students is not expose them to different perspectives, particularly perspectives they’ve not been exposed to by their families,” she said. “Sheltering the students is not helping them, especially since they’re college-bound.”
To Oporto’s request for a policy review and Galligan’s offer to discuss policy changes, Aziz said she hopes the board’s process of making policy changes is not selectively done.
At the most recent board meeting, Galligan said Oporto suggested the changes that the policy committee will consider.
District spokeswoman Mary Ann McGann said Campbell had previously spoken in the Westfield athletic community before and he came highly recommended for the assembly. Two of Westfield High School’s student wrestlers heard Campbell's story and approached the administration to see if they could ask him to speak at the assembly, McGann told TAPinto Westfield in an email.
At the April 6 meeting, Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan said that Campbell “spoke his experiences, which are important to hear,” but acknowledged that some people were concerned because the assembly veered into politics.
The assembly, which was held virtually, was capped at 1,000 participants due to technology limitations and school officials had initially said they would send out a recording for students who were unable to view the speech. The district, however, decided not to send out the recording.
Instead the district offered another virtual viewing of the assembly for students and parents, which they followed up with a teacher-led discussion, Dolan said.
McGann said that only a handful of students and parents took advantage of this opportunity, but the assembly was also discussed in social studies and English classes.
The district had hoped to have more of an audience for the post-assembly talk.
“We wished more had been on, especially for the discussion, because that is an important part of an education, to have the conversation, to realize that people do have different points of view, to respect it,” Dolan said.
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