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Sayreville students are determined to improve safety

Editor’s note: This story took place during “Let the Children Lead,” where students in the Sayreville School District participated in the place of and under the names of board members and district administrators during the March 20 meeting. The comments from board members and district administrators during the meeting described in this article were made by the students under the direction of those board members and administrators.

SAYREVILLE – Students in Sayreville want to improve safety for themselves and other individuals in the district amid requests for increased school safety across the nation.

At a Board of Education meeting on March 20, students spoke before the board to discuss their ideas through a letter that the students had written.

The students’ appearance came after a national walkout on March 14 in honor of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

The walkout was not sanctioned in Sayreville amid safety concerns and other issues, and any students who participated, were threatened with a suspension.

“Myself and 15 of my fellow students created a letter and a petition to express our disappointment and frustration,” student Sarah Nemshick said. “We were not sure where this would go or who would see it, but we were determined to get this out to as many people as possible. To think that kids just like us had to go through something so tragic at Parkland made us upset and angry. The reality of this situation is that this could be happening to anyone.

“Although March 14 was an amazing day in our nation’s history, this group of students wanted to address our own school administration,” she continued. “We felt that something needed to be done. After posting on Twitter, giving it to our principals and spreading it to everyone, we are proud to announce that we have received 1,065 signatures. This letter was not about blaming one person or another and it was not about politics. This was about students coming together to work for the common good.”

Reading the letter aloud, Sarah said, “As students of Sayreville War Memorial High School, we should be protected before anything else. In light of recent events and the administration’s actions, or lack thereof, regarding the mass shootings not just in Parkland, but across the nation, we as a student body no longer feel safe. Not only do we fear the threat of violence that has now become prevalent in this day and age, we also fear what may happen when we attempt to speak out about what we believe is right. Silencing our beliefs is not a viable option and it will not make the issues at hand go away, but instead push them aside and allow them to pile up until they can no longer be ignored because they have grown so large. As students, this issue affects [us] more than any other group and no one sees it with the same perspective as we do, a human issue, exceeding the limitations of political issue. As fellow students of the Parkland victims, we are here to stand up for what we believe in.”

Student Emily Williamson continued, “While we do believe that a two-day suspension may be a severe punishment for taking part in what we believe to be right and just, we acknowledge the fact that there obvious flaws in participating in an unplanned and unsanctioned walkout. After considering what [SWMHS Principal James] Brown said on the announcements on the morning of March 13, we have taken into account the safety concerns that a walkout may bring about and complied a list of alternative options that we can accomplish as a community within Sayreville.”

Student Rose Tomaszewski said, “This is a representation of our rights as not just students, but as human beings. Our ideas can be used as an opportunity to not only educate the students of SWMHS, but as a display of the school’s dedication to their well-being.”

As a suggested alternative to a walk-out, student Anjola Sola-Ojelade said, “Our idea was a school-wide assembly that would provide a safe and welcoming environment where students can share their fears, concerns and questions for administrators and faculty members, [which] would be the perfect step in the right direction. We acknowledge that the high school has mentioned something similar to this; however, we want to express our support for the idea. Many students have expressed that they feel unsure and scared about what the school might do to prevent a mass shooting if it were to occur and having this assembly will cut down any misconstrued information and reaffirm we will be kept safe.”

“Our second suggestion was voter registration within the school,” student Tatiana Whitaker continued. “As we become young adults, it is important to know that voting in times like these [is] the perfect way to do so. Many students have strong opinions, but are unaware of how to turn those into action[s]. In addition to that, I think we should make the information on how to contact local and state representatives readily available for those who have not reached the legal age to vote. By providing them with resources to educate themselves about the voting process and how to register, we would be giving them a platform to voice their opinions. This has been addressed by Mr. Brown within our school.”

“Our next suggestion was to hold a fundraiser,” student Emily Monderine added. “The purpose of it was to get each student to donate at least 17 cents in order to send to the Parkland families. Along with the money, we would like to make a banner that each student can sign in the cafeteria. It would be sent to show that Sayreville stands in solidarity with the victims of Parkland.”

Student Jordan Ndeli said, “At the end of the day, our generation is one that represents change and that is what we plan to do. In light of tragic events, including the school shooting in Maryland [on March 20, the day of the board meeting], we find ourselves even more inclined to take a stand for what we believe in because we know we have a voice and frankly, we’re scared.

“This step forward is monumental, not only for SWMHS, but for our growth as young adults,” Jordan continued. “As an institution that sets out to provide today’s youth the gift of knowledge and the space to develop respect for themselves and their fellow Americans, we hope that the high school, with the backing of the Board of Education, will be open to helping us. We hope that together, we can help students express their voices, beliefs and concerns in a safe environment that supports their growth as individuals.”

For the final suggestion, student Patrick Smith spoke about his proposal for a possible question-and-answer session on school safety.

“Before the board, I would like to propose a Q&A session designed to promote transparency in regard to Sayreville’s safety policies and how they will help to protect the students of SWMHS,” Patrick said. “This can be done as its own form of assembly, containing approximately 20 questions or less; however, it can also be added on to another assembly if proposed, or it can also be placed at an alternative time at night to allow both parents and students easy access to the assembly.

“It is not necessary towards this proposal, but I would highly recommend that the superintendent, Dr. [Richard] Labbe, would be there to answer the questions,” he said. “I feel it that would be more meaningful to the students if the highest-up in Sayreville Public School District was present to answer these questions and I believe that it shows a sense of importance and seriousness akin to that of when a president hosts a press conference rather than a press secretary.”

Board members spoke positively of the students’ proposals.

“As a board, we want to encourage the opportunity for student dialogue,” board President Kevin Ciak said. “No students had approached the board about participating in the walkout until the night before at 7:40 [p.m.]. Even Mr. [John] Lewis, our student representative, wasn’t aware of any student interest in this issue until that evening. The only person we had heard from is one parent. We are excited that students wish to be a part of the solution and are interested in launching a conversation.

“We understand that you are working with Mr. Brown to start that conversation and we support you in doing so,” he continued. “As you saw from tonight’s meeting, we want student input on these important issues. Our only limitations as a board are that we cannot permit students to walk out of school for safety reasons and that we cannot choose a position on these issues for you. That leadership must come from you and we look forward to working with you as you develop your own solutions to these complex problems.

“On a personal note, the petition you prepared was very well done, very professional and very strategic,” Ciak said.

Labbe also voiced his support for the students of the suggestions and Patrick’s recommendation that he attend the Q&A session.

“First, let me say that I am both impressed and inspired by the authors of this petition, the students that spoke this evening and all of our amazing young adults at the high school,” the superintendent said. “I would be both humbled and honored to participate on any questioning panel with regard to the safety and security of our students which you have developed with Mr. Brown in an appropriate forum. I will be there.”

Contact Matthew Sockol at msockol@newspapermediagroup.com.

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