A school board meeting in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was packed Tuesday night as dozens of students and parents waited hours to speak about improving school safety — and ask why a beloved teacher is out of the classroom.
Twice this week, students have protested that history teacher Timothy Locke apparently was removed after voicing concerns about whether Cherry Hill is prepared for a possible school shooting.
Cherry Hill East students demanded answers from the board of education, called for increased school safety measures and reiterated their support for Locke.
One after another, parents and students criticized the administration’s response to the student protests and the questions about security issues.
Junior Kyle Knell said, before this, school leaders didn’t acknowledge the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead.
“If there had been a response by the administration, us students, we would feel safe, and we wouldn’t need some teacher to come in and try to return that safety to us because the administration would have already done that,” he said. “But they did not. They failed in doing that.”
He said the school has a track record of not marking tragedies.
“It happened this year with 9/11,” he said. “It happened this year with Pearl Harbor, and it took two months for the principal to acknowledge the death of a former alumni of Cherry Hill East in one of the naval boats that sank in August. But by simply acknowledging these events, that is all that I want.”
More than 60 people spoke at the standing-room-only meeting. Some shouted at and challenged the board.
Alisha Fazal, one of 30 students who spoke, recounted a four-hour lockdown after a threat last year at her middle school.
“It was very scary for me in there,” the eighth-grader said. “And when the police were walking in, the first thing you saw was the gun, and I got really scared because I thought we were just going to be another statistic. But then after that, things never changed in terms of security, and I don’t feel safe. As a student, every student has the right to feel safe at school.”
Sophomore Liam Reilly said the administration has created a culture of fear around discussing events such as the Florida shootings.
“Our teachers and our school are terrified to talk about it because this is what happens,” he said. “School is a lot more than just what’s in the textbooks. It’s about real life, real events, and things that are going to affect us and our families.”
Parent Scott Seligman said the administration, including Superintendent Joe Meloche, failed to properly address the concerns of students and parents.
“Smugly, last night, Dr. Meloche asked me what does security look like. That’s not my job. My job’s a parent. You’re being hired to protect our students. You’re being hired to make sure that you grab any child out of the school and ask them, ‘Do you feel safe?’ That child should say, ‘Yes sir, I do.’ ”
Seligman said the administration is out of touch with students and failed to acknowledge the personal connection between Cherry Hill East students and students in Parkland, Florida. Some students from both schools have made friendships while attending summer programs.
Parent Joseph Misunas urged board members and the Cherry Hill mayor to meet and talk with students to help them feel safe.
“There’s a fright in our children that I don’t think you understand,” he said. “I am proposing a challenge to you, to all of you. To leave your desks tomorrow, to get up and go to the two entrances at Cherry Hill and welcome the most intelligent children in South Jersey. Make them feel safe. Make them feel you care. I know you care. I know you do.
Misunas’ daughter is a junior at the school.
“They suspended Mr. Locke, the one person who really cared about them, who really stood up for them, who really loves them,” he said. “I know you love them, all of you love them. Mr. Mayor, I know you love them as well. Get up. Leave your chairs. Go and talk to the kids tomorrow please.”
Parent Jerry Janove acknowledged changes since he was in school.
“I graduated Cherry Hill West in 1981. I never once felt scared. Never once had these concerns,” he said. “I have one son, and he’s supposed to attend East next year. After hearing all what’s going on tonight, after seeing what’s happened, I’m having serious doubts.
“My wife served on the PTA for over seven years. I’m very involved in the school, and I cannot believe I’m having these doubts,” he said. “This is very, very sad.”
Mayor Chuck Cahn said the township is calling for immediately arming campus police and an in-depth security study — something the school board had already been working on.
“[The study] needs to be comprehensive, quick, done now, together as a partnership, based on recommendations of professionals that really know what they are doing,” Cahn said.
“The reason council and I came out tonight was to hear your voices. We have heard them loud and clear and I think the board has heard them as well,” he said.
The board and administration largely didn’t respond to the crowd but released letters earlier. In a letter, Principal Dennis Perry retracted his earlier threat to punish students who participated in protests.
While the board president mentioned they were bound not to discuss it, he implied Locke was not suspended.
The board president says the 2020 strategic plan addresses security measures, and an upcoming bond referendum relates to school security.