In the wake of an incident involving a text message allegedly sent by Marshall Elementary School Principal Bonita Samuels that mocked the physical appearance of a student teacher, roughly 30 of the school’s teachers and staff members signed a letter expressing “grave concerns about [Samuels] remaining principal of Marshall School.”
The letter, sent to South Orange-Maplewood School District Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra on January 10, was forwarded to Village Green on Tuesday by a third party who wished not to be named. The names of the signatories were removed from the copy of the letter received by Village Green. (According to the district website, there are approximately 50 teachers and staff members at the school.)
The district, which responded on Friday and Saturday to breaking news about the text, had this to say about the letter: “Dr. Ficarra met with Marshall staff today to listen to their concerns in person. He was unable to answer questions, since, by law, employee matters are completely confidential. Dr. Ficarra appreciates the input of the Marshall community, and will certainly consider all the concerns which have been expressed in writing and at the staff meeting today.”
Village Green reached out to Samuels via email on Friday and Tuesday and has not yet received a response.
The letter (see below) details an incident that took place in December whereby Samuels allegedly took a photo of a student teacher who is a person of small stature and texted it to another staff member, reportedly with the caption “lol.” (Village Green has not received or viewed a copy of the text or photo.)
The letter goes into further detail about the incident, but also contends that it is “just the latest in a pattern of bullying that has plagued Marshall School since Mrs. Samuels was placed at the helm. In the last five years, assistants to the principal, vice principals, teachers, secretaries and other staff have been harassed, accused of perceived injustices, and bullied until they transfer, resign or retire.”
Samuels has worked in the district since 2001. Before becoming Marshall School Principal in 2012, she served as Assistant Principal at South Mountain and taught Special Education at Jefferson and South Mountain Schools.
Regarding the texted photo, the letter claims that Samuels also “displayed [the teacher’s] picture to those staff members in the lounge with her after the student teacher left the room.” The letter describes Samuels as not being able to “contain herself from giving staff members in the teachers lounge ‘knowing looks’ and chuckles.”
While Samuels reportedly later apologized and said she had some “self-reflecting” to do, the letter also asserts that she engaged in intimidation in telling staff to “move on” from the incident.
“We were angered, frustrated and deeply saddened during [last] Tuesday’s staff meeting when we were commanded to have a ‘conversation’ regarding Mrs. Samuels’ behavior so we could all ‘move on’ because, after all, she apologized. Most of us have no problem with forgiveness. However, it is impossible to forget the duress she has continually placed on fellow staff members and the insensitivity she displayed toward this student teacher who is someone’s beautiful child.”
The letter purports that Samuels cannot be trusted to act without bias or lead the school community.
“There cannot be building of community, there cannot be learning; there cannot be education, and there certainly cannot be ‘moving on,’ where there is no mutual respect,” the letter continued. “We trust you and the Board of Education will come up with a resolution to this matter so that we, the staff of Marshall School, can move on with educating our young students.”
On Friday, in response to inquiries regarding the incident (but before the public release of the letter from Marshall staff), the district confirmed the incident had occurred but did not name Samuels, writing, “administrators and Board of Education members are not permitted to publicly discuss personnel matters, including what, if any, discipline a specific staff member receives for any action.” The release went on to state, “We can assure you that the District and the Board are fully committed to the rights of all members of our school community to be able to participate fully in our collective work, free of bias, intolerance, or other inappropriate conduct.”
On Saturday, in a followup release, the district said that Ficarra was “willing to meet with Marshall parents and hear their concerns and comments” and would work to schedule that meeting. The release also stated, “the district would like to make it clear that the incident with the texted photo does not represent the core values of SOMSD.”