WESTFIELD — On Tuesday, during a regular meeting of the Westfield Board of Education, numerous parents and local residents stepped to the podium to urge the district’s leadership to use caution in planning its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program in the wake of the October 7 attacks against Israel.
“I need everyone to challenge their preconceived notions of what DEI means,” resident Kyle George said, adding that such programs, when orchestrated incorrectly, are often dismissive of Jewish history and culture and can, in certain circumstances, manufacture division rather than promote unity.
Other residents echoed similar sentiments, asking the board to consider rephrasing the job descriptions for all future DEI coordinators and professionals to include specific language designed to combat the rising tides of anti-Semitism.
After a lengthy discussion, the board ultimately voted to approve the on-boarding of a new part-time DEI coordinator, who will be paid $20,000 per year for her services to the district.
In keeping with the same theme, Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., who came under fire at the board’s last meeting for issuing a statement that referred to the October 7 attacks as “events in the middle east,” told residents that the district “strongly condemns anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, discrimination and any acts of harassment, intimidation, bullying, hate and terrorism of any kind.”
“Now, more than ever, school districts are faced with unexpected challenges for which we don’t always have an immediate answer,” Dr. González said. “We will continue to address any crisis with urgency while remaining deliberative in our response and always mindful of the needs of all of our students.”
Tamra Feldman, co-president of the Franklin Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, said the superintendent’s original message felt “insincere and uninformed.” She, along with numerous other district parents, wore a sticker that read “Words Matter.”
“The superintendents of Summit, Millburn, Maplewood, and the president of Rutgers issued similarly bland statements initially,” Ms. Feldman said. “They have all issued revised statements. You didn’t. A belated but thoughtful response would demonstrate that you have considered the impact of your words and are actively trying to rebuild trust.”
The board also voted Tuesday to remove a provision from its existing public-meeting policy that required speakers to list their full home addresses into the record before commenting. The amendment, board members said, was drafted after numerous speakers either expressed safety and privacy concerns or attempted to give board member Sahar Aziz’s address instead of their own at the board’s October 17 meeting.
“Per our attorney, it is not legally required to request the personal addresses — just names, municipalities and organizations,” board member Leila Morrelli said.
The board voted to approve the policy revision shortly after its initial introduction Tuesday night, forgoing the usual second public reading that is typically afforded to regulatory amendments.
Ms. Aziz, who cast the only vote against the revision, noted that she was “uncomfortable” with the procedural irregularity.
Members of the public will now be asked to sign in at the podium before making their comments. Additionally, school administrators, members of the press and guest speakers have been given new designated seating areas that will be maintained for each meeting going forward.
Ms. Morrelli went on to note that other non-mandatory meeting practices — including Livestreaming and recording — could soon come under board scrutiny as well.
“At this time, the district will continue to do these things and no changes are currently being recommended, but we will continue to discuss this policy in our committee meetings,” Ms. Morrelli said.
Several other parents addressed the board with concerns regarding the district’s recent AI deepfake that saw doctored images of nude female students circulated throughout the high school.
“Dr. González, last month, under your watch, our town became a laughingstock across the globe due to this incident,” resident Jordan Michael said. “I had friends in London send me news articles about it. Enough is enough.”
Other parents, including one woman whose daughter was directly involved in the incident, called for an update to the district’s Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying policies and encouraged the board to consider harsher penalties for students that violate them in the future.
“Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we can’t provide the number of details and the level of transparency about this incident that people want,” Dr. González said. “We want to make sure that we don’t compromise the anonymity of the students involved.”
Absent from the meeting were board members Charles Gelinas, Kristen Sonnek-Schmelz and Brendan Galligan.
The next meeting of the Westfield Board of Education is scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 19, in the high-school cafeteria.