By ERIN ROLL
Upper Montclair is a favorite after-school hangout spot for generations of Montclair middle-school-age students, especially students from the nearby Buzz Aldrin Middle School and mostly on Fridays.
A fight between two Buzz Aldrin Middle students, of which a recording ended up on social media in January, resulted in a flurry of Facebook discussion — at what age do students stop needing after-school supervision?
The video showed an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy fighting in an alleyway between the Bellevue Avenue parking lot and the businesses on Valley Road. A business owner saw the fight and told the students to stop. He also recorded it from a camera on his business.
Neither student was injured, and the video was soon taken down, but it sparked a discussion about after-school supervision for children who have parents who work and are too old for babysitters, but young enough to make some unwise decisions.
According to Afterschool Alliance, 11.5 million middle school children in the United States are on their own after school. The hours of 3 and 7 p.m. are peak times when children are most likely to get into trouble, including engaging in criminal activity and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex, or are likely to become victims of crime.
Montclair principals have the right to impose a consequence on a student for conduct off school grounds that is consistent “with the district’s code of student conduct” and when it is necessary for the student’s physical or emotional safety, security, and well-being. School authorities will also respond to harassment, intimidation or bullying that occurs off school grounds,according the district’s policy on discipline and code of conduct. Superintendent Kendra Johnson would not comment on any actions the school may have taken with these students.
The After School Alliance found that only 16 percent of New Jersey children participated in some variety of official after school program. The three most frequent providers of after school programs in New Jersey were public schools, the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.
Talk on the street
Margaret Mikkelsen, the president of the Upper Montclair Business Association said the students are mostly welcomed by Upper Montclair businesses and are good customers.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time, the kids are super-sweet,” Mikkelsen said. “[The store owners] love having the kids around.”
Businesses also serve as a safe haven for the children. “I want families to know that if a child feels unsafe, they can go into a store and ask an adult there for help,” Mikkelsen said.
Lt. Tyrone Williams Jr., who heads up the Montclair Police Department’s community services unit, said that all ages benefit from supervised after-school activities, but added that the level of supervision should be determined by the age and maturity level of the individual child or children.
On Fridays, Da Vinci’s Brick Oven Pizza on Bellevue Avenue serves a lot of middle school students. Owner/manager Mario Conte said that the students are respectful. Occasionally, some of the students will get a little loud, but they usually comply when the staff asks them to settle down, Conte said.
The current staff, he said, makes it a point to ask students how their day was at school and how everything is going in their lives. “You’ve got to maintain a relationship with everyone,” he said.
At Cold Stone Creamery on the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Valley Road, customers include Buzz Aldrin students and students from the after-school program at St. James Episcopal Church across Bellevue Avenue. “It’s middle school, there’s a lot of energy,” manager Michelle Jeong said.
The biggest problem the staff have encountered, she said, is backpacks dumped in the middle of the floor.
But one popular after-school program got its start in response to local merchants not happy with the large groups of children in their businesses after school.
Go downstairs to the basement of Union Congregational Church on a Friday afternoon, and you’ll find it is anything but empty.
There are not one, but three video game consoles — with an average of six kids gathered around each — set up in different corners of the room. In another room, another group of kids is watching one of the day’s featured movies: Disney’s “Inside Out.” There’s also a craft table set up where kids can make glitter “mindfulness jars.”
Meanwhile, outside, a group of kids has decided to brave the cold weather and play a quick game of foursquare out in the church driveway.
Welcome to Side Door at Union Congregational Church on Cooper Avenue, which for no charge, gives middle school students a place to hang out after school on Fridays. Some Fridays, they get as many as 97 kids, a greater amount being in sixth graders.
Many of those children, once they’ve attended, remain loyal attendees, coming back in seventh and eighth grade. Even a few high school kids like to come by and visit.
Side Door got its start in 2002, in response to local merchants who were not happy with the kids.
Middle school is a transition time when kids are deciding for themselves how to spend their time “after five years of scheduled playdates,” program coordinator Susan Johnson said.
Many of Side Door’s attendees are gradually becoming more independent and want to spend some after-school time out of the house, but don’t feel quite ready to go “uptown,” Johnson said.
Along with offering after school programs at the schools, the YMCA also offers a designated program for seventh-graders only, with games, athletics and other activities.
Lt. Williams said Montclair has a wide range of safe after-school options for children, but many families aren’t aware of them, or maybe can’t afford the costs.
Specialized programs, like Jazz House Kids, offer scholarships or financial assistance for eligible families.
The YMCA’s tuition is on a sliding scale based on how many days the child attends. For five days a week the cost is $290 a month.
The fight may have taken on a larger-than-life status because it was posted to social media and shared among so many students and parents, said Williams. “I think sometimes we get over excited when kids fight,” he said. But it did start a conversation.
What might help, Williams said, would be to put together a central directory of after-school programs available in Montclair.