Their Silent Message

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WEST ORANGE, Nj — On September 19th, Superintendent Rutzky issued a statement to the West Orange community in response to a racially charged incident that affected the school district. In his statement, Mr. Rutzky reminded the community that the West Orange Public Schools are “built upon the diversity we celebrate in our schools and classrooms every day.” However, many students felt the superintendent’s statement distorted the facts of the situation.

The first protest occurred September 20th during lunch in the senior cafeteria. Students, Eduardo Fajardo and Sophia Raines, held a big poster which read, “Racism is not okay.” Throughout lunch, other students stood with Fajardo and Raines holding similar posters. Students stood silently and peacefully, raising their right fist against racism and intolerance. Fajardo organized the protest in response to the initial incident. Fajardo feels that WOHS should celebrate diversity and eliminate racial divisions. He hopes that his protest would unite people and show that WOHS does not tolerate intolerance. Fajardo stated, “We know there is a problem at this school, not being addressed. We cannot let this go being untalked about.” Raines, a student protester, added, “This is a community. There is a problem we need to fix.”

As the silent protest concluded, a second protest began. Students from the cafeteria flooded into the art hallway to hold a sit-in.  This new protest had multiple messages. A sea of silent black shirts all sat in unison at the command of Kayla Johnson and Kefi Mutume. The idea for this protest resulted from a group chat among Kayla Johnson, Cassidy Ferrell, Lilian Umetiti, Marc Younker and Kefi Mutume.  Word of the protest spread quickly as a flyer circulated through students’ social media pages, asking students to “Protest hypocrisy, racism, and bigotry.” As the sit-in started, security officers and deans supervised the students to ensure everyone’s safety. The protest was respectful and silent as students in black clothing held signs stating, “unity.”  However, security officers stated that students “will be subject to discipline if they [administration] come on announcements and tell [them] to leave.”

When asked what specifically the protest was fighting besides just the intolerance of others, Cassidy Ferrell stated, that students were also protesting “Rutzky and how he reacted to certain situations.” Ferrell also mentioned that students “will protest until they feel a change will be made.” The ideal change she wanted was for Mr. Rutzky to retract his statement and portray a more accurate representation of what happened. Katie Meyerson, a student protester, stated, “Our WOHS is built upon unity and diversity and it is our greatest asset and strength. The Board of Ed for too long has decided what was fact and what was fiction, we need change.” However, it is unclear whether the Board of Education had any involvement in the incident that sparked the protest. A flyer was seen being passed around titled “Why We’re Mad,” which was essentially a list of grievances against Mr. Rutzky and his actions.

Midway through the protest a student brought out a speaker and tried to use it as an opportunity to get the students up and dancing. Ferrell quickly shut it down, proving how serious students were about getting their message across. The hallway quickly quieted down after the speaker was confiscated. Kayla Johnson stated, “There should be unity and harmony and love, we should not be spreading hate.” Like Ferrell, Johnson is also mad at how the Board of Education and Mr. Rutzky handled the situation. Johnson stated, “Racism is viewed more negatively than the actual act at hand.”

 

A teacher who wished to remain anonymous stated, “Every student has a right to have a voice and if they are doing it in a respectful way you are entitled to stand up for beliefs.” Kefi Mutume was spotted after talking to Mr. Delguercio, a dean at WOHS, telling others that students needed to leave by 12:15. Mutume mentioned that she was “Surprised by the turnout and not anticipating how calm and willing participants are.” Unlike the others Mutume feels this protest “is a reminder that our school is a safe place that encourages differences.” She continued, “We can’t shape his [Mr. Rutzky’s] response but we can fix what’s going on within ourselves.”

As the protest came to a close, Lilian Umetiti came out with a megaphone. First, Nicole Montez, a student protester stated into the megaphone statements such as, “This situation is not about the drama and punishment and what happened. It’s about the things that were said and how people feel.” She concluded her statements with, “We need to stick together and have to spread love and positivity.”

After Montez spoke, Mutume ended the protest stating that students should be “Promoting love, unity, love for people that don’t look like us. Promoting the differences that make us who we are.” She concluded saying, “It is important that as you leave and exit that you remember to treat a person the way you want to be treated. Work together and love one another. Allow each other to be different. Our differences is (sic) what allows a world to work the way it does. Make our world beautiful.” The sit-in ended as peacefully as it started as students quietly and calmly exited the art hallway. Mr. Rutzky did issue a second statement with more details on the situ

ation. However, it is unknown whether the new statement was a result of the protest or not. No matter the results, the protests’ message was heard across WOHS and is spreading across the district today.

 

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