UPDATED: South Orange Middle School Students Protest, District Comments
Eighth graders protested the non-tenure decision granted to two teachers
South Orange Middle School students staged a cafeteria sit-in on Wednesday. The group of primarily eighth graders chose not to leave the cafeteria after their lunch period to demonstrate their support of two teachers, Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort, who were denied tenure this year. Both teach eighth grade Social Studies.
This is the second protest at SOMS this week. Monday afternoon saw a demonstration outside the school. Throughout the week, signs have been posted on lockers and in hallways of the school. (Photo attached.) Wednesday's protest was peaceful and orderly, according to school officials.
Students, along with parents and faculty, also spoke in support of the two teachers at Monday's Board of Education meeting.
Speaking last week for the Board of Education, Suzanne Turner noted, "By law, administrators and Board of Education members are not permitted to publicly discuss personnel matters. The District will therefore not comment on any decisions to renew or not renew a teacher's contract."
The district released a statement on Wednesday evening. It reads in full:
On Wednesday, May 16, 2012, many eighth grade students at South Orange Middle School did not return to their classrooms at the conclusion of lunch. Staff informed students that if they remained in the cafeteria and did not report to class, the regular consequences for a cut would result. The students who remained in the cafeteria were peaceful.
At the end of seventh period, South Orange Middle School Principal Joseph Uglialoro addressed the students remaining in the cafeteria, who listened respectfully:
As citizens of this country and our democracy, you have a right to express your ideas and opinions, and to petition those in positions of power for change. I deeply respect those rights, and believe you are learning a valuable civics lesson that extends beyond any class or textbook. However, as the principal, I am responsible for maintaining and protecting the orderly operation of the school’s educational program, and once your actions interfere with that primary responsibility, we have to take action to restore that purpose. At this time, you have cut a class, and the appropriate consequence will be assigned. I am telling you now that your message has been heard, and that its strength will not be increased by remaining here for another period.
By 2:30pm, all students had returned to their classrooms.
The district cannot comment on the consequences given to specific students, but the code of conduct outlines all the possible consequences that a student can receive, depending on the infraction. (The policy is here.)
In addition, Board of Education policy # 5520 outlines the policy on Disorder and Demonstration:
The Board of Education is responsible for providing a thorough and efficient system of education for pupils in this district and is authorized to preserve order so that the system may function properly. Pupils will not be disturbed in the exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to assemble peaceably and to express ideas and opinions, privately or publicly, provided that their activities do not infringe on the rights of others or do not interfere with the orderly operation of the educational program….
The Board will not permit the conduct on school premises of any willful activity engaged in by an individual acting alone or by a group of individuals that interferes with the orderly operation of the educational program or violates the rights of others. Disorderly pupils will be disciplined in accordance with law and Board Policy No. 5600; staff members who assist pupils in disorderly conduct may be subject to disciplinary measures.
The Superintendent shall establish procedures for the prompt resolution of any disorder that occurs on school premises. The building principal shall be responsible for the identification and resolution of disorders in any school building and may summon law enforcement officers as necessary.
On Wednesday evening, Principal Joseph Uglialoro sent the following email message to the SOMS community. It is reproduced here in full and refers to the same policies linked above.
Dear SOMS Parents and Community,
Today, at the conclusion of their lunch period, many of our eighth graders remained in the cafeteria to express their position on recent personnel decisions involving SOMS staff. The students were supervised by me and the two assistant principals and, excluding a few minor actions which were immediately addressed, they remained orderly throughout the demonstration. Some students returned to class at the end of period seven, and by approximately 2:30 pm, all of the students had returned to their eighth period classes.
At the midpoint of the demonstration, I expressed to the students that as citizens of our democracy, they have a right to express their ideas and opinions, and to petition those in positions of power for change. I shared with them that I deeply respect those rights, and believe they are learning a valuable civics lesson that extends beyond any class or textbook. I also explained, however, that as the Principal of South Orange Middle School, my primary responsibility is to maintain the orderly operation of the educational program, and once any individual or collective actions interfere with that purpose, I must act to restore it. As part of that effort, appropriate and measured disciplinary consequences will result for those students who did not report to class in order to participate in the demonstration. While I cannot comment on the consequences given to specific students, the district code of conduct outlines all the possible consequences that a student can receive, depending on the infraction.
In addition, Board of Education policy # 5520 outlines the policy for Disorder and Demonstration:
The Board of Education is responsible for providing a thorough and efficient system of education for pupils in this district and is authorized to preserve order so that the system may function properly. Pupils will not be disturbed in the exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to assemble peaceably and to express ideas and opinions, privately or publicly, provided that their activities do not infringe on the rights of others or do not interfere with the orderly operation of the educational program.
I believe we all agree that the primary purpose of our schools is to provide an environment in which all students can successfully participate in their educational program. It is important that our students know that their right to express their voice can be effectively and broadly exercised in ways which do not interfere with or disrupt the educational program.
Principal, South Orange Middle School