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Montclair police officer
IMAGE COURTESY MONTCLAIR PUBLIC SCHOOLS A screenshot from the Feb. 19 Board of Education meeting video shows school resource officer Det. Pierre Falaise approaching the podium as Kellia Sweatt speaks. The BOE was criticized for the decision to have police present at the meeting.

By ERIN ROLL and JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
roll@montclairlocal.news
winters@montclairlocal.news

A police officer’s presence at a recent Board of Education meeting is being called an intimidation tactic by some parents, while board members claim his presence was requested due to “escalating tensions” at recent meetings. 

The BOE requested that Det. Pierre Falaise, the School Resource Officer, attend the Feb. 19 BOE meeting after three previous meetings were recessed, and one adjourned all together, after parents were vocal in their requests for Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker to resign.

NAACP Board Member June Raegner has accused Parker of saying, during a meeting of the NAACP in the fall where she was present, that he does not have a problem with “teachers being racist,” as long as they keep their views out of the classroom. Parker has claimed that his remarks were referring to the subject of bias in hiring practices. But at every BOE meeting over the last four months, parents and particularly the Montclair chapter of the National Independent Black Parents Association, have repeatedly called for Parker to step down or be removed as superintendent. 

The Montclair NAACP said in January that it would not ask for Parker to resign, though the organization did raise concerns regarding Parker’s remarks. 

When parents arrived at the Feb. 19 and discovered the officer, they became vocally upset, and during the public portion questioned his presence.

While Kellia Sweatt, the chair of the Montclair chapter of the National Independent Black Parents Association, was speaking and was told her time was up, the officer approached her.

“Black children have suffered in this district. They suffered here when I attended. My daughter suffered in this district. Each of you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Sweatt told the BOE. Sweatt also denounced the board for asking the officer to be present at the meeting. “Why? Because we’re holding you accountable?” She accused some in the district as being complicit with racism. 

Parent Sienna Robinson said she had lost all confidence in the BOE due to their silence on Parker’s remarks, and added that she would be removing her child from the district after the end of the school year. She also called for Parker’s removal. 

“You sit up here and you showed statistics talking about the racial gap between successful students, successful black students, and other students,” parent Lisa Davis said, referring to a budget presentation earlier in the meeting. That was followed by a proposed $600,000 cut to equity, curriculum and instruction. “You’ve got to go. You’ve got to go,” Davis said, adding she didn’t understand the NAACP’s decision not to ask for Parker’s removal. 

At one point when members of the audience began raising their voices and Parker attempted to speak at the podium and was unable to, the BOE went into a recess.

NOT MEANT TO INTIMIDATE 

Montclair Deputy Police Chief Wilhelm Young told Montclair Local the presence of the officer was not meant to intimidate.

“The Montclair Police Department strives to be a “positive influence within all aspects of the community and in no fashion seeks to be perceived as an intimidating or coercive,” Young said.

But the officer’s approach to Sweatt was met with protests from the audience, so much so the board went into recess. 

On Feb. 28, the BOE issued a statement saying the resource officer was asked to be present due to threatening language at previous meetings. 

“This was a painful decision that was not made lightly. It was not intended to stifle public opinion, but to create and maintain an environment where differing opinions could be presented and discussed respectfully,” the statement read. 

PAST PRESIDENT, CIVIL RIGHTS CHAIR SPEAK

Former BOE president Laura Hertzog told Montclair Local that in her four years as a board member, the police were asked to be present one BOE meeting, and that was on the night that Jessica de Koninck was expected to be voted out as BOE president.

In her capacity as BOE president, Hertzog said she never asked the police to be present at a BOE meeting, even when Hertzog was being subjected to personal attacks from the public. “I thought that asking the police to come to a BOE meeting would be intimidating to the public, and escalate any problems or tensions,” she said. 

Hertzog accused the present board of not taking steps to de-escalate the situation around Parker and his remarks, and instead has ignored the problem hoping it would go away. She said an official statement on Parker’s remarks, and the district’s position on racism, was long overdue. 

Police presence at BOE meetings came up for discussion during a recent meeting of the  Montclair Civil Rights Commission, including whether black parents would feel silenced while speaking at the microphone at BOE meetings, as well as a discussion of public safety issues, said chair Christa Rapoport. 

If a police officer’s presence is requested, it should not have a chilling effect on the public voice, Rapoport said, and the officer should be respectful of the people in the room. “It should not be punitive,” she added. 

POLICE PRESENCE HERE AND ELSEWHERE

Young said he is “certain” that officers had attended BOE members in the past, but did not have the number of times. And he said Falaise has attended other BOE meetings, but not in uniform. 

In neighboring Bloomfield, the BOE has had a police officer present at a meeting only once in recent years. For that particular meeting during teacher negotiations, a large number of teachers attended to make their voices heard, said Bloomfield Schools Superintendent Sal Goncalves.

The controversy over police presence at BOE meetings also comes as the district is proposing changes to its policy on public participation in board meetings.

The current policy posted on the district website requires speakers to sign in and to give their names and addresses. The speaker is currently limited to three minutes. The proposed changes would allow the board to set the parameters of the public comment period, including declaring the three-minute period to be optional. 

The current policy says the board may ask someone to leave the meeting if their conduct is keeping the meeting from moving forward. 

The changes also include prohibiting a speaker from allowing a subsequent speaker to use their unused allotted time. 

Opponents claim the policies are meant to curtail public input at meetings.  

Attempts to reach Sweatt for further comment by phone and email were unsuccessful. 

To see a video of the meeting click here.