Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

SOMA Action’s Student Leadership Committee Goes to Trenton

Students from South Orange and Maplewood were invited by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey’s office to testify at a Joint Committee in Trenton on February 5, along with students from Newark, to address issues of chronic absenteeism and school climate and culture.

According to information supplied to Village Green by Assemblywoman Jasey’s office, a recent survey of New Jersey public school teachers revealed that “two of their foremost concerns were chronic absenteeism and school climate & culture.” As a result, Assemblywoman Jasey suggested a presentation on the topics to the Joint Committee on Public Schools.

Mary Theroux of Assemblywoman Jasey’s office explained that the Joint Committee on the Public Schools is comprised of seven Senators and seven Assemblymembers and is vested with oversight of New Jersey’s K-12 public schools. The committee is chaired by Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) and  Jasey (D-27). The Committee is tasked with examining “a variety of issues relevant to and impacting schools to shine light upon issues of importance, and where appropriate, provides pathways for legislative remedies.”

Students invited to the Hearing on Chronic Absenteeism and School Climate & Culture included students from Newark public schools who had participated in a report compiled by the Abbott Leadership Institute, New-Ark Leaders of Health, under the direction of Keleena Berryman, “chronicling the student’s findings as to the reasons for their peers attending public schools in Newark were absent from school and the Executive Director of the JCPS reached out to solicit their participation.”

In addition, Jasey’s office reached out to Shannon Cuttle, “a nationally recognized expert on school climate and culture.” According to a statement from Jasey’s office, “Our office asked for their assistance in compiling an expert panel on LGBT climate and culture affecting the school experience. We desired to have a school-centric hearing, and were thrilled when SOMA Action Student Leaders, with whom our office has previously worked, expressed an interest in participating, allowing for a perspective from a diverse, suburban district. Their request was happily accommodated by the Joint Committee.” (Editor’s Note: Although Cuttle is a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, they were not asked to participate as an official BOE member but rather in their professional capacity.)

The statement continued, “Yesterday marked an extraordinary successful hearing, and Co-Chairs Senator Rice and Assemblywoman Jasey are grateful to the organizations who provided a framework of understanding and the compelling, powerful testimony of students who came forward to share their stories of how school climate & culture contributes to chronic absenteeism and impacted their lives.”

Theroux added, “All of the students present made an outstanding contribution to a critically important conversation.”

From SOMA Action:

The co-chairs of SOMA Action’s Student Leadership Committee testified to The Joint Committee of the Public Schools at the state legislature Tuesday, Feb. 5. The students had been invited to speak on issues connected to chronic absenteeism and school climate and culture in public schools.

“Our goal today is to speak up for the role of the student voice in the work that the committee is doing,” SOMA Action Student Leadership Committee member Olivia Hirsch saidHirsch and Phoebe Hill spoke about the how dress codes and harassment impact the school climate experience for girls.

Laila Gold and Claire Lipkin said lack of clarity around lockdown drills make a school climate feel unsafe. “Safety measures should be efficient, easily understandable, and consistent,” Gold told the committee.

“We understand that it’s almost impossible to eliminate hate speech,” said Lily Forman, who testified about bias incidents with Zoë Newman. “But we must do more to address its causes and its aftermath, especially when the hate is expressed in school.”

The students were invited to speak to the Joint Committee on the Public Schools by its co-chair, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D, LD-27), who is also chair of the assembly’s higher education committee.

“The student leaders of SOMA Action and Maplewood Youth Advisory Committee made a tremendous contribution to the success of the JCPS hearing on chronic absenteeism and climate and culture,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27). “Their testimony provided a unique perspective, which helped our members better understand the importance of a positive learning environment. I was proud of the manner in which they presented, and grateful for the suggestions for improvement which they shared.”

Maplewood Township Committeeman Dean Dafis and safe schools expert Shannon Cuttle made the trip to Trenton with the students. Cuttle and Maplewood Youth Advisory Committee vice chair Dylan Danuser also testified. There was also testimony from: student leaders from Newark, Rutgers University and Kean University; the Hetrick-Martin Institute; GLSEN; and Rainbow Health Consulting.

This was the second time in a year that the state legislature has recognized the SOMA Action Student Leadership Committee for its work. The New Jersey Assembly honored the group with a resolution in May.

See NJSpotlight’s report on the hearing here: WHY DON’T KIDS GO TO SCHOOL? STUDENTS HAVE THEIR SAY 


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