Students staged an in-school protest for a teacher who was placed on leave after speaking about mass shootings in class. Many said the district has lost their trust from its handling of the incident.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 27, 2018
Additional reporting by Abby Schreiber
Cherry Hill High School East students who protested the suspension of a popular history teacher were threatened with discipline for disrupting classes.
They said that teacher, Timothy Locke, was one of the only staff members to broach the subject of the Parkland, Florida school shootings in the classroom.
Locke also allegedly criticized the district security policies while doing so.
Locke told Philly.com that he had been placed on administrative leave, subjected to a search of his belongings, and ordered to complete physical and psychiatric exams. Students whose protests threatened to disrupt the school day were diverted to the high-school auditorium by Principal Dennis Perry on Monday.
Perry also reportedly threatened the forfeiture of their senior class trip or senior prom if they persisted. The impromptu assembly drew a few hundred, according to eyewitnesses.
Junior Hoon Kim said news and video of the assembly had spread throughout the high-school community via social media “so by lunchtime nobody had not seen what happened.”
Students were not allowed to mention any teacher by name during the gathering at risk of suspension, Kim said. He felt like the administration only entertained the discussion because the sit-in had forced their hand.
“A lot of my fellow peers felt like they didn’t really make a huge effort to hear what we had to say, and only did this to get the protesting students out of the way,” he said.
Kim said he’d like the district to refine its policies for handling student concerns, and urged township residents to back them to the hilt.
“I think East needs a new approach in handling politics and important discussions,” he said.
“The administration won’t listen to just us. Anyone in Cherry Hill needs to actively participate in the community and help bring change.”
Junior Luke Shin said the experience made him feel like communication between students and school leadership has been broken.
“I think the principal didn’t have a response, whether that be because of the position he was in or because he genuinely didn’t know how to answer our questions,” Shin said.
“Most questions were answered with ‘I can’t answer that,’ or, ‘That’s an assumption.’”
Video footage obtained by NJ Pen shows Perry cautioning students that he can’t answer their specific requests under employment law, and attempting to redirect some of their lines of questioning.
“The issue is that you’re making assumptions as to what was heard, and I cannot provide you with that information,” Perry said in one filmed exchange.
The approach was frustrating, Shin said.
“We’re all angry,” he said.
“I feel like the administration keeps telling us that they want to hear what we have to say, and then don’t listen to any of it.
“We were told today that the administration wanted us to recognize our rights, but then [they]threatened any protestors with immediate suspension.”
Senior Ari Nahum, a current student of Locke’s, said his teacher is “tough as nails,” and “a great man.”
“You will never meet anyone like him,” Nahum said. “He puts his students first and inspires all of them.”
Nahum said Locke was allegedly placed on unpaid leave for criticizing security protocols at the high school during classroom discussions about the Parkland shooting.
“He thinks the school isn’t safe enough and someone could easily walk in,” Nahum said. “He also said he would take a bullet for all of his students.”
The district’s handling of the incident has breached trust with a student body rattled by the frequency of school shootings in America while inflaming parents who fear their school isn’t secure enough.
By Monday evening, nearly 500 students had signed a Change.org petition calling for Locke’s return to work. A previously scheduled “Coffee and Conversation” with Superintendent Joseph Meloche drew some 50 people to an emotional, 90-minute meeting at Cherry Hill High School West.
“We’ve been taught to trust a failing system. We could easily die tomorrow, and nothing would have been done to stop it.”
Cherry Hill High School East junior Aden Savett
There, parents and students questioned Meloche directly about Locke’s fate, criticizing either the district’s security policies or its handling of the incident or both. The superintendent declined to speak about any specific circumstance involving any individual teacher or student. He said the district investigates any employee about whom “concerns are raised.”
“Every staff member in this district is represented by a professional association,” Meloche said.
“I can’t fire anybody, I can’t suspend anybody. That only happens when the Board of Education takes action.”
Cherry Hill Education Association did not return a message seeking comment, nor did its union president respond to an individual request for comment.
Adopted in 2016, the district policy on “disorder and demonstration” claims that students’ exercise of free speech must not “infringe on the rights of others” nor “interfere with the operation of the educational program.”
The policy further states that students as well as “staff members who assist pupils in disorderly conduct” can face discipline for their actions.
An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) primer on free speech in the public schools notes that case law upholds students’ rights to protest politically through non-disruptive measures. Court opinions offer that students’ free-speech rights “must be ‘scrupulously’ protected if we are to have any hope of ‘educating the young for citizenship’ and teaching students not to ‘discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.’
“We hope those schools recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should,” wrote William J. Brennan fellow Vera Eidelman for the ACLU.
Whatever the result of Locke’s case, East junior Aden Savett said he feels like the institution that is supposed to vouchsafe his physical safety as well as his individual liberties is doing neither.
“We’ve been taught to trust a failing system,” Savett said.
“Subsequently, we’re waking up and realizing the system no longer deserves our trust.
“We could easily die tomorrow, and nothing would have been done to stop it,” he said.
Cherry Hill Police Chief Bud Monaghan said he is unfamiliar with Locke’s case, but said he thinks it’s appropriate for adults to have conversations with children about their safety.
“I have conversations with my own kids about what-if scenarios,” Monaghan said. “Security doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of law enforcement, it rests on the shoulders of everyone in the community. They need to step up and do something if they hear about something suspicious.”
Although any school has the potential for violence, Monaghan said he doesn’t believe Cherry Hill East is at any specific risk. He praised watchful neighbors for adopting an attitude of calling authorities with specific concerns.
“It’s just a matter of trying to mitigate the risk as best you can with a comprehensive safety plan,” he said. “One of the things we’ve gotten better at as a society [is that]people are willing to come forward, and we’ve gotten more calls because of it.
“If you hear something that’s suspicious, contact us, don’t go to social media,” Monaghan said. “Call us and give us a chance to take a look at it. We do a very thorough investigation of all threat reports to the schools.”
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