BOE candidates discuss diversity, school security at forum

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The three candidates running for the two open seats on the West Orange Board of Education participated in a debate to discuss the issues facing West Orange School District on Oct. 11. Held at West Orange High School and hosted by the West Orange Council of PTAs, challengers Terry Trigg-Scales, Jeremias Salinas and Cheryl Merklinger told the community gathered in the school’s media center and those watching live at home what they would do if elected and why they are running.

Diversity was a topic of conversation at the debate, with the candidates sharing what they believe to be the challenges the district faces what can be improved. Salinas highlighted the many different types of families in the community and said he believes the educational experience must be relevant to every student’s background.

“We have a very diverse population here in West Orange. Students come from many different family structures — single-parent families, immigrant families, LGBTQ families and many, many more,” Salinas said at the debate. “I believe that we need to provide services that are relevant to the educational experiences of each one of these families and their kids. We also need to make sure that we challenge those students that come from families that have educational backgrounds. We need to build equity in all of our schools for our students. Opportunity needs to be provided to children to grow in many different areas and in many different forms.”

Salinas said that the district has to do a better job recruiting and hiring staff members. He wants the staff to be more representative of the student body both in race and gender.

“I think the district has taken a positive initial approach to finding ways to improve this, but I think we need to do more in terms of reaching out to university programs, education programs, and make sure that those students that are going to be teachers stay here for a long time.”

Trigg-Scales, a longtime public school educator, said that while diversity is a strength in West Orange, it is also a challenge.

“It’s not enough to just be aware that we’re different,” she said at the debate. “We want to get to the point where we are appreciating our differences and ultimately celebrating them. That’s what I think West Orange is all about. We’re not just talking about cultural differences, but gender preferences. We’re talking about religious and ethnic and cultural differences. I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think as I said, it’s certainly a challenge and we have to find ways to embrace people who are unlike us.”

She said the district should work toward hiring more teachers and administrators with diverse backgrounds and focus on training those teachers to deal with students who come from different backgrounds than they do.

“It’s important that our youngsters see role models in the schools that look like themselves,” Trigg-Scales said. “That’s really, really important and I think because we have a diverse student population, it’s incumbent upon us to train our teachers to deal with diverse cultures and student backgrounds. There is a new program out of Temple University that actually deals with the disproportionality, because if you look at our special ed, if you look at our gifted programs, if you look at the students who are disciplined, they are disproportionate and so this is an area that we need to concentrate on. We need a student data analyst at our ready so that we can look at the numbers and make a difference.”

Merklinger, who grew up in West Orange, said she thinks the district does a good job handling the diverse backgrounds of students although there is still room for improvement.

“I think we do an excellent job here in West Orange with diversity, from the time I was in Gregory and Roosevelt School to what my son is now experiencing,” Merklinger said at the event. “We’ve made leaps and bounds in the way we’ve promoted diversity within the town and within our schools. There’s always room for improvement.”

She said the diversity career fair the district held in the spring was a good first step, and encouraging students to pursue a career in education is another way West Orange can attract more diverse staff members.

“In my job when I was in HR and recruiting, we worked with historically black community colleges and universities, Delaware State being one of those,” Merklinger said. “What you find is that a lot of those students are looking to go into more professional careers. There’s not a real big focus on education. They are looking to become lawyers or doctors. They’re looking to go into the finance professions. There’s not as many that are looking into the education field. So that’s something that we need to promote with our students, that the education system is something that is worthwhile.”

Another topic that came up at the debate was school security, with a question from the audience asking the candidates if they think teachers should be armed in classrooms and if metal detectors inside the schools are necessary. Salinas answered the question first, saying that when he attended high school in Newark there were metal detectors, but he doesn’t think there should be in West Orange.

“You begin to institutionalize kids into believing that schools are just like prisons,” Salinas said. “When I got my job at Woodbridge Middle School, I walked in and there were no metal detectors. That’s what a school should look like. You’re not sending your students to a prison. You’re not sending your students to be with armed guards. I’ve never shot a gun in my entire life, never held one and I don’t have the need for it. That’s why we have specialized, trained individuals in our town, people that are skilled in those areas. With arming teachers in the school and putting in metal detectors, you’re just building that school to prison pipeline that we talk about all the time. I think we need to stay far, far away from that.”

Trigg-Scales agreed, saying that the schools already do an excellent job of keeping people who are not supposed to be in the school buildings out of them.

“I see metal detectors nowhere near any of our schools,” she said. “We do a very good job keeping people out. You know you come to drop off your lunch for your child and you have to show your license, right? We are not the bad guys, but that’s where all the technology is right now in, in scanning everyone that comes into a building.”

Trigg-Scales would like to see alarms on all the doors in the school buildings and doors that have sheet metal in them, making them harder to break down.

“We need to know that if a student goes out the door that they’re not supposed to go out, that we get an alarm,” she said. “That’s where the problems occur. So I think alarm doors and impenetrable doors would make a difference. Guns don’t belong on teachers and they don’t belong in classrooms.”

Merklinger said she is curious to see the results of the district security audit and what came out of the safety and security forum that school administrators and the West Orange Police Department held at WOHS in February. She also does not believe metal detectors should be inside school buildings or that teachers should be armed — especially, she added, since school resource officers already are armed.

“Metal detectors have been shown to not deter someone from coming into a school building,” she said. “We already have alarms on doors. If we alarmed every single door in West Orange, I can tell you the alarms will be going off every single hour, every single minute because students are constantly coming and going. We have a great camera system here in West Orange and I think that’s probably something we need to look at more. At our elementary schools, the SRO is a good deterrent to someone who’s coming into a building. It’s been proven that if someone is trying to get into a building and you see an SRO or someone armed, they’re going to go look for another way to get into the building. And hopefully by then we’ve picked up on that in the cameras.”

A question from the audience that the candidates discussed was the need for guidance counselors in school buildings and whether or not there should be more of them in the district. Salinas, Trigg-Scales and Merklinger also discussed how to better support students’ mental and emotional health.

Salinas, who teaches middle school world language classes, said that afternoon he’d had a discussion with a parent of one of his students who has social anxiety, which kept the student from speaking up in class. Salinas said that while he is not equipped to help that student, guidance counselors are.

“We have very, very good counselors, but they’re stretched thin,” he said. “I think we need a lot more at an early stage, in order to provide the services to children and make sure they are successful in school. There are certain things that guidance counselors at the schools will be able to provide, especially in certain situations like where you just can’t take off from work and be with your child.”

Trigg-Scales agreed that the district should find a way to hire more guidance counselors.

“These are very stressful times for families and for children,” she said. “So do we need more guidance counselors? Absolutely. Parents are stressed, so you know kids are stressed. I was just having a conversation about homework, which is a stressor in anyone’s home, whether it’s an elementary child or it’s a middle school child or high school child. So something as simple as homework can turn a normal household into a chaotic situation. And so when you stop and think if homework can do that, what’s happening with peer pressure? What’s happening with the substance abuse that is so prevalent in our country? What’s happening with the gender-identification issues? We need more.”

She said that it is important to provide support to students as well as their families, especially in high school, when the college-application process begins.

“Parents need help. Students need help. Teachers need help. We as a society need help,” Trigg-Scales said. “It’s really important that we provide the resources for students and for families. Forget about the whole college application process — that in and of itself is stressful and that starts freshman year; kids started accumulating quality points, working on grade-point averages. It’s all cumulative. So yes, we need more guidance counselors.”

Merklinger agreed with Trigg-Scales and Salinas that the district needs more guidance counselors, and added that students often have a hard time asking for help. While more support can be available to students and families with more guidance counselors, Merklinger said students and families must be encouraged to talk to those counselors.

“A lot of our students said that while the tools are there and the support system is there, they don’t know how to ask for help,” she said. “I think that’s something that we have to focus on within our district is bringing those skill sets to our students, giving them the tools they need to say ‘I need help’ and learning that it’s OK to ask for help. I think our guidance counselors do a great job. I think we could definitely use more of them, but I think it’s giving our students the empowerment to say, ‘Hey, I need help.’”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic