A student of Timothy Locke said the teacher may have spooked administrators with a colorful assertion during a classroom discussion about the wisdom of arming schoolteachers.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 1, 2018
A beloved Cherry Hill East history teacher known for his unconventional style may have set off alarm bells with school administrators after an off-the-cuff lecture about school shootings.
Timothy Locke was suspended last week, triggering two days of student demonstrations and a firestorm of criticism from parents whose fears about the perceived vulnerability of district facilities have been heightened by the incidents.
But according to one of his students, Locke’s classroom remarks on February 22 verged on reckless, as he steered the discussion toward President Trump’s remarks about the wisdom of arming schoolteachers as a deterrent for mass shootings.
The student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Locke told students that in such a circumstance, “he’d be the one with the gun.”
The student said Locke then wrote the words, “I have the gun” on the class whiteboard, and later spoke about how “it wouldn’t be hard for someone to make their way into the building.”
“He’s always been political,” the student said; “it’s not out of the norm for [Locke] to say stuff like that.
“We were shocked and taken aback, but brushed it off as something he would say,” the student said. “Before, it had never been anything related to him, it was just general commentary.”
The student said Locke asked his class to think through the notion; to consider whether their behavior would change if they found out whether certain teachers had guns. Some classmates reportedly were shaken enough to tell Principal Dennis Perry about their experiences.
Locke was later placed on paid leave, subjected to a search of his belongings, and ordered to complete a mental and physical evaluation.
The student said Locke has a pattern of sharing colorful, personal stories about his experiences as a Gulf War veteran and about his struggles with addiction, but questioned whether those anecdotes are always relevant to the curriculum.
“I don’t think he does the best job preparing us for class,” the student said. “I’ve felt uncomfortable before. I don’t know if I’m getting a lesson. It never relates back to the material.”
The student further alleged that Locke has been in contact with student protest organizers and may be encouraging them to disrupt the school environment. On Tuesday, Perry and Cherry Hill Superintendent of Schools Joseph Meloche cited the disruptions as threats to district security in open letters.
The school district has not discussed any details of Locke’s case publicly, citing the strictures of employment law and the open nature of the investigation into complaints against him.
Despite not sharing Locke’s assessment that the high school is especially at risk of violence, the student observed that his suspension became a touchstone for a youth culture that is fed up with gun violence and parents who are anxious about the vulnerability of their schools.
“I don’t feel unsafe [at Cherry Hill East],” the student said, “[but] I’m hyper-aware. I have never felt threatened, but I know where the exits are, where the refuge areas are.
“School shootings are a touchy subject. You pile this on top of it… I don’t really know what a good resolution would be,” the student said.
Cherry Hill East parent Eric Ascalon said the kinds of remarks for which Locke likely is being disciplined are what makes him a great teacher.
“He teaches in the Socratic method,” Ascalon said. “He answers questions with questions. He will engage kids with his life experiences and connect with students on all levels.”
Ascalon described Locke’s approach as “irreverent” and “unique,” which he said reached his son, Zaiden, a sophomore whom Locke taught last year.
“He’s teaching AP History to kids that are going to the Ivy Leagues, and he fosters the type of engagement in kids that are not bound for competitive schools, or college at all, and enables them to have a voice,” Ascalon said.
“In a community where you are supposed to be ashamed of yourself if you don’t get into a good college, or if you go to a trade school, Mr. Locke is the antidote,” he said.
Ascalon praised the teacher for speaking candidly about his experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military service, which he said Locke brought into the classroom regularly.
“Many people with such a diagnosis would have kept it hidden; he decided to use that to engage his children,” Ascalon said. “That’s what we need in society.
“Here’s a teacher who’s a mentor and a role model using these experiences,” he said.
“The administration is trying to use that as a basis for his dismissal.”
Ascalon said Locke has frequently butted heads with administrators for his unconventional style, and suggested that, “if it wasn’t this, it would have been something else” that got him in trouble with Perry.
“He doesn’t represent any kind of threat to his students,” Ascalon said.
“He practices Buddhism. He’s peaceful.”
Calls to Locke’s union-appointed attorney were not returned Wednesday.
In the meantime, the Cherry Hill municipal government has pledged immediate action to shore up security throughout the district, and has pledged to put armed officers in school buildings as quickly as possible.
Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn said members of the township council and Board of Education will meet on Friday with district officials and Cherry Hill Police Chief Bud Monaghan to hammer out the details.
“I think it’s less about dollars and cents and more about a plan to move forward,” Cahn said. “I hope they would agree that campus police is appropriate in the high schools and middle schools… but that’s only one part of the entire plan to look at.”
Cahn said the district could consider “everything from metal detectors to swipe cards to protocols for locking the doors,” including security cameras and bollards.
“We’re going in there with an agenda that spells out a half a dozen items that can be done relatively quickly,” the mayor said.
“We’ll add police officers, and we’ll add resources and dollars to supplement what the Board of Education does, and take money out of the equation.”
Cahn suggested that the district could retain retired police officers relatively inexpensively, but added, “You have to put the right officer in the right location.
“There’s a lot of training that goes on before you put a gun on a school security officer; a lot of sensitivity,” he said.
“Even though he’s an armed police officer in a uniform, his job is to get the children to know him.
“You have to have the right individual who’s willing to engage in all of that,” he said.
Asked whether the presence of armed police could have aggravated the student protests of the past week, Cahn suggested that law enforcement “might actually be a resource” under such circumstances.
“Some of those issues are policy issues, not police issues,” he said. “He might actually be there to help organize a peaceful protest.”
- Cherry Hill Principal Retracts Punishment Threats; Mayor, Council Call for School Security Review (Feb. 27, 2018)
- Threatened with Discipline, Fearful for Their Safety, Cherry Hill East Students Push Back After Teacher’s Suspension (Feb. 27, 2018)
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