Election Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

District Probes Charges that Columbia HS Teachers, Student Distributed Election Flier in Classrooms

A four-page flier critical of incumbents Donna Smith and Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker was circulated by at least one teacher and a student in classrooms at Columbia High School on Monday — in violation of Board policy — before the Tuesday election for South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.

Parents of two students told Village Green that a teacher had distributed the flier to students in a classroom, a charge the district confirmed it is investigating. In addition, Walter Fields, director of SOMA Black Parents Workshop (BPW), which originally created the flier, confirmed to Village Green that a student had also mistakenly distributed the flier in a classroom.

On Tuesday Fields said the Black Parents Workshop accepted blame for what he said was a miscommunication and apologized to district administration. “We take full responsibility.”

Fields said there was “a miscommunication with one of the students volunteering, and the newsletter was distributed in a classroom, and not after school, outside the building as intended. We communicated our apologies to the Superintendent and the principal yesterday [Monday], and took full responsibility for the error. We also made clear the student was not responsible, and it was our miscommunication.”

A parent of a CHS senior told Village Green that the flier was reportedly distributed in her son’s classroom without any discussion about its context. “I did specifically ask [my son that] because I felt that the…teacher could use the flyer as a great source for discussion how media and the masses can influence society.  That did not happen, which truly bothers me,” said the parent, who wished to remain anonymous.

Village Green is confirming the identity of the teacher involved.

When the flier was initially disseminated last weekend, some residents, town leaders and candidates criticized it for creating divisiveness in the campaign; others said questioned whether it was appropriate for BPW — an advocacy organization helmed by Fields, who also served as campaign manager for candidates Avery Julien and Felisha George — to have distributed it. Fields asserted it was within his organization’s rights to hand out the material and said his BPW and campaign work were separate and unrelated.

South Orange-Maplewood School District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner told Village Green the district had received several reports about the flier being distributed in CHS classrooms.

Turner explained that Board policy 9700 “forbids the distribution of political literature to or through the pupils of this district,” and Board policy 3233 “prohibits the use of school premises and school time… for partisan political purposes.”

“The Superintendent has directed the CHS Principal [Elizabeth Aaron] to do a thorough investigation,” added Turner.

Elizabeth Baker won re-election to another three-year term, garnering just over 20% of the votes out of nine candidates. Smith was defeated in her bid for re-election. Robin Johnson Baker and Anthony Mazzocchi also won seats.

Read the full results here. 

Fields forwarded the email that he sent to Ficarra and Aaron on Monday, which read, “I understand that our newsletter was distributed in a classroom today. That was an error and we take full responsibility. Signals got crossed and we dropped the ball. We had student volunteers from two student organizations, and the plan was to distribute them after school, outside the building. From what I have been told, this occurred in one classroom. I am addressing the situation and will make certain it does not occur again. Again, it was a miscommunication and any student involved should not be held accountable. We take full responsibility. ”

Asked whether he knew if any teachers were involved in handing out the fliers, Fields said to his knowledge it only occurred in one class “and I am not aware if it was a teacher or student. Our concern is that it was distributed in the school, which was never the intention. Clearly, a communication breakdown on our part and we take responsibility for that.”

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