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Schools in East Brunswick NJ under fire for yearbook error

EAST BRUNSWICK – Conceding that there was “a gross lack of oversight,” Superintendent of Schools Victor Valeski announced that a special counsel will investigate how the East Brunswick High School 2024 yearbook published a photo of Muslim students instead of members of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) where all names of the Jewish students have been removed.

But the announcement did not calm many of those who came to Thursday’s Board of Education meeting to criticize the district’s administration for what has been called a “blatant act of anti-Semitism.”

“Shame on the East Brunswick government, whose duty it is to oversee these young students who are expected to generate the content of this yearbook, and who are completely failing to do so adequately,” said Heba Megahed, mother of two district students. “Shame on you for creating a clear divide at a time when sensitivity has increased globally.”

Megahed was one of nearly 750 audience members who filed into the high school auditorium and spoke to school officials about the controversy that has roiled the suburban school district.

Abby Aranovich, a junior, recounted before the school board several anti-Semitic acts directed at her: being yelled at, having pennies thrown at her, mocked with slogans of anti-Semitic rhetoric, being traumatized in the high school hallway and then following her to her gym .

She said she was reluctant to report these actions because of the government’s lack of action in the past and feared backlash.

“No matter what I say or report, nothing will be done,” Aranovich said. “I stand here not to demand attention or sympathy, but to convey a message that has become vague, lost and overlooked. Our school is one of the most diverse institutions I have ever seen And that’s the beauty of it. Everyone of every color, sexuality, gender, race and background is protected and respected. But according to the latest action, this clearly does not apply to Jewish students.”

Hasan Sayin, co-chairman of the school’s Muslim Student Association, said the group’s members bore the brunt of the blame for the controversy, with some being verbally abused and threatened.

Sayin said the Muslim community “fully supports any form of condemnation of anti-Semitism.”

“But when you act so quickly, label something unknown as anti-Semitism, and take hours to half-heartedly apologize to the Muslim community without being specific, you separate the united community of East Brunswick,” said he. . “It should be one community. But if you take one side and don’t defend the other side, you separate the community.”

‘Should never have happened’

Valeski said the independent investigation by the special counsel would begin immediately.

The chief inspector said the investigation “will validate what we have already seen and provide an independent, thorough and fair conclusion that we can deliver to the community.”

The school board hired Yaacov Brisman of Brisman Law of Passaic, at the suggestion of board attorney Matthew Giaccobbe, to conduct the investigation.

“From that initial investigation, we determined at the very least that there was a gross lack of oversight and the creation of that page for the yearbook,” Valeski said. “And we recognize that this is unacceptable. We also know the impact on students in East Brunswick and the entire East Brunswick community because of this oversight. I want to assure everyone that we have just picked up on the commentary, the passion, the anger; we have I took it seriously.”

The incident “should never have happened,” Valeski said.

Precautions will be taken “to ensure this never happens again,” he said.

“This investigation will be fruitless if we do not have controls in place to ensure this never happens again,” Valeski said.

Seniors have been asked to return their yearbooks to the main office so that the page will be replaced with a new page by a representative of Varsity Yearbooks, the publisher, who will be in the school district. The proof of the new page has been made, the chief inspector said.

Valeski assured students that their own copies will be protected and that the repaired books will be ready by “Senior Send Off” on Wednesday.

‘Alienated and disillusioned’

Valeski’s words failed to reassure many at the meeting.

Many expressed outrage over the yearbook incident and all – Jews, Muslims, Christians, students, parents, residents – demanded answers and action.

Many also laid the blame for the current climate of division and fragility at the door of the district administration and school board for their “poor response.”

Some said Mayor Brad Cohen inflamed the situation by calling the incident an “act of blatant anti-Semitism” before any investigation had been conducted.

Others called for Valeski’s resignation and others warned school board members they would be voted out of office.

On Friday, Cohen said they “missed an educational opportunity.”

“The events of the past week could have been an opportunity to show everyone around us that we stick together when any group is hurt, attacked or discriminated against,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

He added that the “years of deep-seated pain felt by Muslim and Jewish students as a result of acts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that have been reported and dismissed” must be immediately addressed.

“In the meantime, we all need to take a step back and turn down the heat,” Cohen said, referring to the escalations in communal tensions and the onslaught of “posts, letters and texts” that convey “a level of bias, racial slander and harassment that are no different from the yearbook fiasco itself.”

Charlotte Friedman, president of the East Brunswick High School Jewish Student Union, said she was “shocked and hurt” when she discovered her group’s photo in the yearbook had been replaced. She said she didn’t sleep well and didn’t study for final exams.

“It feels like our identity as Jewish students has been symbolically erased,” Friedman said. “It is extremely disturbing to see the club for which I served as president for two years invisible and unrecognizable. Every time I open my high school yearbook, I will always be reminded of this disturbing event.”

Another photo of JSU members was taken Thursday and more than 50 students showed up, Friedman said.

Justin Ockun, who graduated from high school last year, said the incident and the response to it have been “a failure in leadership on multiple levels.”

“As we heard today, while all evidence, logic and reason for this yearbook incident point to it being a deliberate act of hatred against the Jewish community, we are not the only group hurting right now,” Ockun said. “And with that being said, how is it possible that the response to this incident has backfired so badly that every member of the community, regardless of which groups they affiliate with, feels completely alienated and disillusioned. We as a community have We are devastated by this incident. Yet no one in the district has taken the initiative to unite us. The terrible stories of discrimination we have heard today must be denounced by this government in no uncertain terms.”

Sayin, the co-president of the school’s Muslim Student Association, wondered where the empathy was for himself and his fellow Muslim classmates when their photo was posted online.

“The majority of the children in that photo are minors, and no one, as it was spread on social media to the national news, no one cared about the safety of those minors,” Sayin said. “And to think that we, the MSA, would do this deliberately, as an act of anti-Semitism, is abhorrent. We have been exposed to Islamophobia and further harassment due to a lack of authority on your side.”

School board members expressed pride in the students who spoke at the meeting, apologized for the polarization in the school and hoped for healing.

“It breaks my heart because I have never seen this in East Brunswick,” said board chair Laurie Lachs. “I’m incredibly heartbroken for them (students). I’m not saying this has been handled perfectly. I don’t think anything has ever been handled perfectly, and we have to learn from our mistakes. And some people have called for an apology, and I can only speak for myself. I apologize and I’m incredibly sorry for what’s going on with these kids. And I’m devastated to hear some of the things that happened in high school and no child would ever had to feel that way, and I’m sorry.”

“I look forward to the day when a student can come forward and not have to say ‘I’m a Jewish student’ or ‘I’m a Muslim student,’” said board member Vicki Becker. “Just ‘I’m a student. ”

Lachs added that she didn’t know “why we don’t give you answers, but no matter what we say, you won’t believe us.”

“And deep down, I don’t believe this is anti-Semitism,” she said. “And the reason the call is for an external investigator is that no matter what we say, we are accused of keeping secrets and having transparency issues, but the reality is that there is a very thin line between transparency and confidentiality .”

After Thursday’s meeting, the Jewish Federation of Heartland New Jersey asked school officials to return to conversations with the organization and Jewish community families affected by anti-Semitism and its mistreatment in district schools to “build a path forward and to correct the schools of the district’. unacceptable past missteps by administrators and teachers, including dismissing a student’s report of anti-Semitism – not once, but twice – saying the student ‘wasn’t offended enough,'” said Susan Antman, executive director of the Jewish Federation in the Jewish Federation. Heart of New Jersey.

“The inability to parse details to accurately portray events as they unfolded, obfuscating issues, piecing together facts, lack of attention to timelines, blanket statements, misrepresentations, false equivalencies, and fabricating stories to to conform to preconceived hypotheses or prejudices was in full swing. shown at the June 6 Board of Education meeting, on social media surrounding the yearbook incident, and in fact long before and well after the yearbook incident,” Antman said.

The Federation also called on the state legislature to stop postponing and canceling the vote on two bills. S1292 helps people responsible for recognizing and responding to antisemitism understand what antisemitism means by adopting a standard definition of antisemitism, and S2937 ensures that if a public entity uses DEI-based standards, the standards must include Jewish people . Current public DEI initiatives do not do that, the Federation said.

“While it is true that we will never legislate to eliminate hatred and generations of ingrained bias, these bills provide a guardrail to support school leaders who otherwise may not have the training, moral compass, courage, or insight to to do the right thing. at the right time,” says Antman.

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Cheryl Makin is an award-winning feature and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: [email protected] or @CherylMakin. To get unlimited access, subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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