SCOTCH PLAINS — Thursday evening’s Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education meeting brought out residents voicing concerns on both sides regarding the postponed use of a work of historical fiction entitled “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa.
The book had been planned for use as an elective peer-led workshop earlier this month, but “Amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and the recent incident in our own Terrill Middle School, I have decided to postpone the elective professional development session,” according to a letter sent to the community by Superintendent Joan Mast, Ed.D., on January 15.
“This global conflict is complex and has been eliciting strong emotions within our schools and communities,” Dr. Mast said Thursday evening. “I spoke with families who are afraid to send their children to our schools and others who are deeply concerned by a novel at the center of staff professional development. Others are concerned we are censoring or banning books, and this is untrue. However, we are building a pathway to have discussions about any given text on a positive and productive platform. I have listened carefully, and I want to reiterate our schools are safe, supportive places for all students to learn and grow. Everyone belongs here in Scotch Plains-Fanwood and we do not tolerate bullying or acts of hate. When emotions are highly charged, every interaction can seem magnified and every word can be analyzed. This is all very understandable. Words are very important. So is the meaning behind them. Our messages of inclusion at Scotch Plains-Fanwood are powerful because they reflect our actions.”
“I want to take time to address the letter that Dr. Mast sent…regarding the postponement of the elective public session that would feature the book ‘Mornings in Jenin.’ I thought this book was a way to foster dialogue about the plight of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Americans are really upset that it was postponed. Ever since the start of the crisis on October 7, Dr. Mast has sent emails in support of the Jewish community…I waited patiently for communication that also recognized the suffering of the Palestinian people but no such communication ever came. Instead, I received an email that a book about Palestine is being postponed, in what seems like an active effort to silence Palestinian voices,” Nancy Shihadeh told the board. “I thought our community would be open to conversations like this, but it seems like we want to diminish Palestinian voices.”
Other members of the community expressed gratitude to Dr. Mast for addressing the Palestinian community in her statement. They claimed that in the past, Dr. Mast has overlooked the Palestinians while focusing more on the Jewish community.
Sean Denning said that the acts of Hamas on October 7 and following have “touched off a wave of anti-Israel protests and anti-Semitism around the world, including in the walls of our own schools…they view Jews as the oppressor class and Palestinians as the victim class…if this sounds dangerous, it is.”
“You only need to look at the author’s Facebook page to see their true feelings. Feelings that the district wants to hide,” Mr. Denning said. “To be clear, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity, anti-Muslim and anti-any other group positions are poison. This poison is manufactured from critical race theory and it does not build peace or understanding.”
Parent Brad Herman took issue with an Evergreen Elementary School teacher’s social-media posts. While he did not identify the teacher by name, he quoted from several of her posts, which included her saying, “I do not believe in Israel’s right to exist,” and two where she took issue with the Jewish Federation’s CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, both for his posts regarding the suspension of Rutgers Students for Justice in Palestine and for his involvement in the postponement of the SPF professional development workshop.
“It is one thing to be highly critical of Israel…be against settler violence in the West Bank and be concerned about Palestinian rights. That is not anti-Semitism,” Mr. Herman said. “But it’s another thing to say Israel has no right to exist. This is anti-Semitism…Moreover, I have one child left at Evergreen and he is a preschooler with an IEP. I hope he never needs this teacher’s services…and I don’t want her anywhere close to him.”
“I implore each of you to focus on positive actions, such as spreading kindness,” Dr. Mast said. “We may not be able to end the conflict in the Middle East, but we can collectively grieve and show compassion to each other. Then we can have an open dialogue. That is where our power lies.”
A ceremony was held earlier in the evening to honor the district’s Governor’s Educator of the Year awardees and Exemplary Educator of the Year awardee. A resolution was passed acknowledging the 2023-2024 highly-skilled and dedicated educators who go above and beyond for their service.
Principals from Brunner Elementary School, Coles Elementary School, Evergreen Elementary School, McGinn Elementary School, School One Elementary, Nettingham Middle School, Terrill Middle School and Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School were called to the stage in their respective order to speak a few words about the recipients from each of their schools.
A teacher from Brunner Elementary School was described as having the “ability to make anything fun.”
Another recipient was described as “life-changing” because she was able to help prepare a non-verbal 5-yearold to attend after-care independently.
Each teacher was called to the front of the room as their principal spoke about them prior to receiving a round of applause from the audience, and some even received flowers from family members and students. Each teacher was given an award and a white rose from the board to recognize their achievement.
In addition, the New Jersey Exemplary Educator of the Year Award was presented to Zachary Rittner of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. He was awarded for the hands-on experiences that took place under his leadership. Mr. Rittner actively engages students with experiences outside the classroom, including hand-raising chicks.
Prior to the ceremony, the board held an executive session where members discussed several matters, including incidents of HIB, personnel, and a legal update that was on the agenda. The board approved two special- education legal settlement agreements, including one in the matter Docket No.: 10188-2023 and one settlement in the matter Docket No.: 13898-23, and authorizes the board’s administration and board attorney to take all steps necessary and appropriate to carry out this action.
Also on the agenda at the regularly scheduled meeting was a due diligence traffic study at 330 South Avenue in connection with the bond referendum. The board is completing due diligence prior to the purchase of the property.