Community Tensions Rise at Westwood School Board Meeting Over Book Removal, Hate Letters

In a recent Westwood School Board meeting, heightened tensions erupted over the placement of the book “Bend Don’t Shatter,” controversial board actions, and incidents of received hate letters. Amidst a backdrop of broader educational discussions and policies, community members voiced their concerns, calling for transparency, communication, and a united front to ensure the well-being of students and educators.

Central to the meeting’s discussions was the anthology “Bend Don’t Shatter,” designed for young adults and addressing coming-of-age topics from an LGBTQ+ perspective. The book’s placement in the educational system came under scrutiny. A committee recommended its move from middle school to high school, aligning with New Jersey’s Department of Education standards. While some board members saw this as a reasonable compromise, others were against having the book in schools entirely. One member noted disparities in book descriptions, drawing parallels between different news outlet perspectives.

Another pressing issue addressed during the meeting involved multiple community members, including Nicole Prella and Nicole Martin, receiving hateful letters. These letters, which targeted vocal members of the community, were reported to the police. Concerns grew over some board members potentially attempting to silence or shame the recipients instead of directly addressing the issue.

Resident Sarah Sigley lamented the community’s divisive state and drew attention to educators’ derogatory labeling. She emphasized the educators’ commitment, especially during the challenging times of the pandemic.

Trustee Jason Garcia’s vote of no confidence and removal from negotiations sparked further debates, with some residents accusing the board of an “abusive power” display and alleging dishonesty in dealings with teachers and principals.

High school senior, Amera Gel, criticized remarks made by the board president about mental health, which she found “deeply inappropriate.” Gel stressed the importance of genuinely listening to students, staff, and parents to create a positive learning environment. Samantha Murphy, another high school senior, commended teachers for their commitment to providing factual education. She called for mutual respect, noting instances where some board members appeared inattentive or disrespectful during meetings.

Amidst the core discussions, Superintendent Jill Mortimer announced the middle school’s participation in the Bergen Brainbuster competitions and new after-school programs. She also presented on the school safety and climate team’s assessment, focusing on the anti-bullying Bill of Rights Act initiative. Significant variations in student proficiency rates across demographics were revealed, with interventions planned to bridge the achievement gaps.

Additionally, community members praised specific educators for their dedication, with Julie Rivera emphasizing the distressing loss of over 40 district teachers in the past year, potentially due to a perceived hostile environment.

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