Students, Parents Protest Punishments, Support the 'Funny Five'
A group made up of parents and students showed up in front of the school administration building, hoping to get answers.
For full background on this story, visit our previous coverage detailing the fact that the FNL high school comedy sketch show was cancelled and moved; read the school district's statement; hear FNL parents/students speak out; read about the planning of the protest by FNL members; and hear about how two FNL students previously excluded have now been allowed to attend prom.
Columbia High School students and parents gathered outside the South Orange-Maplewood School District offices Friday afternoon to protest punishments handed down to five students after a comedy sketch they performed last week was deemed offensive by the school.
The “Funny Five,” as their classmates have come to call them, were notified Tuesday that they were to serve “Super” Saturday detentions (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) on June 16, and two were told they could no longer attend prom – an aspect of the punishment that has since been remediated in exchange for community service hours over the summer.
Incensed by punishments they believe the school had no grounds to give, concerned by a supposed pattern of reactionary procedure and irritated by a perceived lack of effort by the school to communicate with students and parents, nearly 70 people congregated in front of the administration building on Academy Street to demonstrate.
“The broad-reaching implications of this are absolutely scary,” said Dylan Reichman, a senior and the student who played the biggest part in organizing the protest. “[The administration] made a decision that was ill-informed and because of people with personal biases...” The district’s statement claims that the students were told to cut the sketch in question, which offered a comedic depiction of a certain teacher, prior to Thursday’s performance, but they went ahead and did it anyway.
According to the cast, no such conversation ever took place. They cut a different sketch prior to the first show on recommendation from a faculty member, but the five say they were “encouraged” to do the sketch that ultimately got them reprimanded.
“I found it to be ridiculous and unprofessional on their part,” said the sophomore who played the role of the teacher who was upset about her portrayal. “There was nothing to be punished for. We did everything the way that they wanted us to do it.”
The student went on to describe support from classmates as “wonderful,” especially that from Reichman, who started the online petition, which at the time of this report had more than 820 signatures.
“I could be out of [school] in five days,” said Reichman. “I could graduate, go on my way… but I have a little sister and a little brother who, next year, are both going to be in this school. For them to have to sit through this was a frightening prospect for me.”
But the Funny Five have garnered a great deal of support from parents as well – and not just their own. Cate Lazen and Lee Rafkin felt compelled to offer their support, as they each have children in the school. “Instead of teaching them about freedom of expression, we’re teaching them about capricious abuse of power,” said Rafkin. When asked if he expected to hear a more detailed or satisfactory explanation from the school, Rafkin said of course he would like to, but, “I expect to hear nothing because that has been their prior behavior… They hide behind liability and legality as excuses for not talking... They need to talk to us and be transparent.”
Arthur Cohen, the father of one of a junior student in the FNL troupe, described the administration’s handling of the issue as “an embarrassment.” He went on to characterize Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne’s actions as “Cowardly, because he didn’t meet with students; he just doled out punishments.”
After about an hour on the sidewalk, the demonstrators were invited inside for an impromptu meeting with Director of Strategic Communications for the SOMSD Suzanne Turner. In the meeting room, Turner heard the students’ side of the story and took questions. She informed the group that although she does not have the power to make any changes she will communicate their frustration to the administration. “I agree 100 percent that dialogue is important,” she said. “That is something that I am trying to make sure happens. Communication is something that is a very important priority to the district.”
While students will have to wait longer for their proverbial ‘day in court,’ it is unlikely the Funny Five will suffer through Saturday detention; at least two of the five told Patch that until there is transparent discourse with the district, they would not be spending any part of their weekend at school.