Cherry Hill East Students Offer Accounts of Classes Before Teacher’s Removal


In separate interviews with five students of Cherry Hill East history teacher Timothy Locke, the high-schoolers describe the tone of two class periods Locke taught before being placed on paid leave.

By Matt Skoufalos | March 3, 2018

2016 yearbook photo of Cherry Hill High School East History Professor Timothy Locke.

Students of Cherry Hill High School East history teacher Timothy Locke fear they may have seen the last of him for the year, just a few months before many will take the advanced placement (AP) test for which he’d been preparing them.

The teacher has been at the center of student protests since he was removed from school February 22, allegedly after lecturing about deficiencies in their school’s security in a conversation about mass shootings.

No specific cause or causes have been given for Locke’s being placed on administrative leave.

In an effort to piece together the events of February 22, when Locke last taught at East, NJ Pen spoke with five students who attended two, back-to-back sections of AP history he taught that day. The students shared their recollections on the condition that their identities not be published.

Classes at Cherry Hill East run on a block schedule, and “D” block was the second period of the day. Students said their teacher opened with a discussion of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which had occurred a week earlier.

The talk quickly turned to how, in Locke’s opinion, the same thing could easily happen at Cherry Hill East. Students said their teacher was troubled at the prospect, particularly as district policy has historically prohibited armed guards in the schools.

(On Friday, the school district announced it would post armed, uniformed Cherry Hill Police officers at every building starting Monday, March 5 as part of a package of immediate security reforms.)

Cherry Hill parents and students asked Superintendent Joseph Meloche for answers about the district’s security policies and its handling of a teacher’s remarks. Credit: Abby Schreiber.

At some point, a student asked Locke his opinion of President Trump’s remarks that armed schoolteachers could deter mass school shootings.

Locke said he disagreed with the notion, but believed that, as an ex-military officer, he could be qualified to carry a gun in school.

“It started with how we were so vulnerable, and then it started to get more emotional for him,” one student said.

“He said he would take bullets to protect us.”

Locke promised the class that he would defend them in the event of an armed intruder. He even joked that if he were killed in the act, he’d want a memorial to be installed in his usual parking space, the student said.

At the conclusion of that period, at least one student reportedly checked into the school nurse with complaints of anxiety, according to classmates.

During the next period, “A” block, Locke apparently again opened with a discussion about the deficiencies of the security at Cherry Hill East and its similarity to schools like Stoneman Douglas and Columbine, where shootings have occurred.

In this class, students said Locke introduced the topic of armed schoolteachers. Again, after stating his opposition to the concept, Locke once more used the opportunity to describe how “he’d be the one with the gun,” one student said.

Students said Locke told them ‘he would take bullets to protect us,’ and joked that if he were killed in the act, they should erect a memorial in his usual parking space.

In the discussion that followed, Locke asked the students whether they felt gun-carrying schoolteachers would affect their behavior. To underscore the point, he wrote, “I have the gun” on the classroom whiteboard. Most characterized the remark as overt sarcasm; others marked it as odd.

It was apparently the final word on the topic for the day, according to one student, who said that after that remark, the class shifted focus to student presentations on 17th and 18th century revolutions.

After the period ended, selected students from both the “D” and “A” block classes were called to the main office. They were asked to provide an account of their experiences in Locke’s class.

“The teacher I was speaking with said, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’” one student said. “He said, ‘We’ve been getting complaints about one of your classes. Can you guess which one?’ And he asked me if there was anything of concern said by teachers or students.”

Locke had been scheduled to meet with his third section of AP students, “F” block, on Friday. But by the end of the day, he had been subjected to a search of his belongings and placed on administrative leave. Locke also told that he was ordered to complete a physical and psychological exam.

Word spread that Locke had been suspended, and on Monday morning, students organized an in-school demonstration protesting his removal. Cherry Hill East Principal Dennis Perry corralled the group into the school auditorium under threat of losing prom, graduation, and school trip, remarks he later retracted.

By the next day, the students staged a full walk-out.

Tuesday night, the community showed up in numbers to the Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting, demanding both Locke’s reinstatement and tighter security measures district-wide. Three days later, the district announced new security policies, drafted in participation with the township government.

But Locke’s students are still waiting for word of their teacher, whose fate hasn’t been determined amid the controversy. Students said he has been replaced with three separate instructors who were pressed into service late in the school year and must help them prepare for their AP exams on short notice with unfamiliar curriculum.

“Now he gets taken away from us, and they put some random teacher in there who also isn’t prepared to teach the course,” said one student. “It puts the teachers in a hard place, and they’re upset with it as well.

“We really took the course to have Mr. Locke,” the student said. “It wasn’t to learn AP history, it wasn’t to take the test; it was to have Mr. Locke.”

Other students said they wished the administration had taken less drastic measures.

“They told us [Locke]  was on leave for the rest of the year,” one said. “Just because they haven’t confirmed everything, there’s still possibilities everywhere.

“I felt like they just decided way too fast,” the student said. “It feels like the class got derailed after last week.”

Police applicants fill the gymnasium at Cherry Hill High School East in January 2016. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Although the school offered a number of remedies intended to reform its process for dialogue between students and administration, students said those mechanisms don’t matter as much as the restoration of their teacher.

“That’s not really what most of the students want,” one student said.

“Even though they can’t have it, they just want an answer about what happened to Mr. Locke.”

Another student believes that the security policies were only toughened because Locke’s suspension prompted such an outburst from the school community.

“If he was wrong, then there wouldn’t have been this level of reaction,” the student said.

Almost uniformly, the students agreed that Locke is deeply concerned with their well-being, that he inspires them to succeed, and that his distinct teaching style is motivational. Others said that Locke is frequently emotional in class, and doesn’t hesitate to bring up personal experiences in the course of instruction.

Students said their teacher has described suffering from childhood trauma, battling addiction, and being homeless before a military recruiter signed him up for the U.S. Air Force. Teaching became a second career; Locke has been with Cherry Hill Public Schools since 2001.

Locke also allegedly told students he has battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since witnessing the 1996 Deptford mall shooting in which a teenager and would-be robber were killed and two other people seriously injured, according to the New York Times. Students were divided about whether they remember Locke citing that event in connection with his feelings about the Parkland shooting specifically.

Taken individually, none of the anecdotes from Locke’s classroom were characterized as out of the ordinary for his typical lecture style, students said. But school administration, which has uniformly declined comment on the matter, may have viewed them collectively as concerning enough to warrant the investigation.

At the least, Locke’s removal has spurred the kinds of changes to district security for which he’d advocated for so long. The students, who have organized both a crowdfunding campaign and public petition for their teacher, have said they will continue to push for his restoration.

“[Locke] said, ‘You don’t get anything done if you don’t do anything,’” one student said.

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