WESTFIELD — Tuesday night’s Westfield Board of Education meeting, while calmer than some recent meetings, covered a broad range of hot-button topics, from new state curriculum for sex ed, to new mask-optional policies and racial issues.
In regards to the Governor’s lifting of the mask mandate on Monday, March 7, “I fully anticipate that at that time we will be able to maintain a mask-optional policy,” Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., said. He said that with the exception of a few instances, such as on buses, “by and large” masks will be optional.
Approximately half of the attendees left the session during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Wail Rasheed, president of the Islamic Center of Union County; Zellie Thomas, an organizer for Black Lives Matter, and Tovah Fry, from Jewish Voice for Peace, along with several others from across the state, publicly expressed their support for Board Vice President Sahar Aziz, who is employed as a Rutgers Professor.
Ms. Aziz, who has been criticized and accused of being anti-Semitic for re-tweeting a post that referenced the phrase “from the river to the sea,” said that the tweets were made in a private environment separate from her role as a board member.
“I didn’t know we were inviting the Rutgers fan club here tonight to speak on behalf of the board VP,” resident Kyle George said. “From the river to the sea — it’s absolutely anti-Semitic, Mr. [Edward] Israelow said at the recent forum in Westfield, so I don’t know where that fact is coming from or the attempted fact.”
Mr. George went on to say that Ms. Aziz tweeted on February 10 a link to “Drop the ADL.” He pointed out that because the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) is the district’s official partner for No Place for Hate, there is a connection to Ms. Aziz’s tweets and her work on the board. “It is a 100-percent legitimate concern,” he said.
Parents and Westfield citizens have raised concerns regarding a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, in which swastikas have been found in different locations, including a playground and a high-school bathroom — incidents which prompted a recent community discussion against hate.
Ms. Aziz related several incidents in which she described being targeted as a Muslim and a woman, including one where a member of the Westfield community accused her of being a supporter of the terrorist group Hamas.
“Last meeting, out of the blue, I was accused of being anti-Semitic for tweets, re-tweets, on my personal account as a professor, as an expert on the middle east, on issues related to foreign policy that have absolutely nothing to do with the board of education,” she said. Ms. Aziz went on to say that the people bringing this issue forward are the people who lost the election.
“People respond differently when they lose elections,” she said. “The right to dissent, the right to free-speech rights are fundamental rights of any resident of the U.S., much less a citizen of the U.S. And so to come and take speech that has absolutely nothing to do with the board of education’s business, that’s conducted in private, and essentially allege that I am anti-Semitic, is a form of censorship.” Ms. Aziz said that doing so is a misuse of the “real oppression” and anti-Semitism happening and is instead Islamaphobic and does injustice to anti-Semitic acts.
Another issue about which parents expressed their concerns was the New Jersey State lesson plans regarding sex ed classes. They worried the lessons were too explicit and raised unnecessary questions among young children.
“My point is that these are sensitive topics that should be left to the parents to decide when their children are mature enough to handle the teaching of these topics in detail, especially at the elementary-school level,” resident Emily Barker said. “This is not the job of the schools, and it should never be. It is our children, our parents; the parents of our children should decide.”
Dr. González said that the plan is still in the review stage and that the board respects parents’ opinions and choices toward the matter. He assured parents that no matter what the final policy looks like, they could opt out of the growth, development, and human sexuality lessons.