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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, 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.

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.
 
In partnership,

Joseph Uglialoro
Principal, South Orange Middle School

Sophie May 16, 2012 at 11:34 PM
We won't give up! COHEN'S NOT GOING! WE SUPPORT MCCORT! The district conveniently forgot to mention the fact that our... beloved principal told us that knowing we are able to protest outside of school is MORE IMPORTANT than any LESSONS we get in school from our teachers. And he's saying he cares about our education? We don't care about the consequences, we just care about doing what's right!
Magnum Phelps May 17, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Our O so wonderful Principal Said and i qoute " My job is to keep a balance between education and your freedom of speech " .But by ripping down or poster telling us to take the off our bodys is it really a balance or lop-sided to your authority .
Nina Kambili May 17, 2012 at 01:03 AM
This article glosses over the disrespect that the administrators (besides James Jennings) have been showing students. Mr. U's speech was far more condescending, and several students who needed to leave for health reasons or to use the restroom were threatened with suspension if they rejoined the protests.
Liam Doerr May 17, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Mr.u has been here for less than a year, and he makes decisions like this? I think he is trying to establish his dominance.
Marcia Worth (Editor) May 17, 2012 at 10:20 AM
Hello Nina, Please feel free to add any first-hand information to the story, whether by commenting further or emailing marciaw@patch.com. Thank you.
MnM May 18, 2012 at 01:07 AM
As responsible citizens of this town, the students are protesting the elimination of the 8th grade social studies team. I am proud to live in a place where our youth stands up for what they believe in. It's a shame that the incoming 8th graders will pay the price -- there is no way that any teacher could possibly fill their shoes.
Annie Onomous May 18, 2012 at 01:42 AM
There were approximately 40 8th graders who chose to go to class, me included. I can't cut and many people felt this way. The teachers were instructed to hold class as usual. McCort and Cohen followed this but very few other teachers did. From McCort's classroom you could see the library shake. The administrators came around to take attendance to give credit to those "not supporting the yelling and disobedience." I agree that Mr. U is being very dominant and I have heard that he is trying to bring in staff from his old school. "It does not seem fair that someone who has not received tenure himself should have this much power over the decision." Said one eighth grader. Mr. U has been monitoring our Facebook accounts and other media to find the names of any teacher giving any support so that there is proper punishment. One teacher who will remain nameless told the students of her eighth period "I have never seen anything like this before. The students are so passionate about these teachers." Futhermore, Mr. U walked students out of school in action night for hanging up posters and telling people what they were about. The students were required to take down their signs and instead handed them out as flyers. Students are right the names of the teachers on their skin and making bracelets reading "Cohen an McCort 2012 and Forever. We truly will not surrender until they receive tenure!
cs May 18, 2012 at 02:58 AM
As a student in south orange middle school and a witness to all the sit-ins and protests i can truely say these people are strong. just for peering into the window of the protest i was told to mind my own buisness and get back to class but tell me how is it not my buisness, these are my friends who are just using their rights and are being punished for this STAY STRONG! they cannot suspend us all
Sophie May 18, 2012 at 11:09 AM
Mr U lied to us: There are no such thing as cuts in middle school. That only applies to the high school.
Sophie May 18, 2012 at 11:11 AM
We are having a HUGE protest today all day, please everyone who can come support us. We welcome any adults who support our cause! You'll see us if you arrive at the school any time today. If anyone does decide to show up outside of students, we ask that they please bring a small donation like a few bottles of water because we WILL be outside the whole day.
Icecream May 18, 2012 at 02:03 PM
Students do have a voice and they are showing it today by not going into school. I think that what they are doing is very brave. I am proud that they are sticking up for their rights. WE NEED TO BE HEARD!!!!!!!!!!! We support McCort! Cohen ain't goin'!

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