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Last month NJ Education Report published a letter from the mother of a student who just graduated from Neptune Public Schools. This letter, sent anonymously to NJER (not by the mother), described the trauma suffered by her daughter as a result of a sexual assault, the student’s decision to address this incident as part of her scheduled speech at the Neptune High School graduation, and the district superintendent’s decision to silence her.
Last week the mother spoke to me about what prompted her to write the letter, which was sent to all members of the Neptune Board of Education. Sonia Kinney and her daughter Teresa gave permission to use their names.
Teresa is an extraordinary student, determined to go to college. As such, she was a member of Neptune’s Poseidon Early College High School, a program designed for students who would be the first member of their family to pursue post-secondary education.. Data shows that first-generation college students are more likely to complete their degrees if they begin with some college credits under their belts. Neptune’s program allows ambitious students to take high-level courses and graduate high school with not only a diploma but also an Associate’s degree from Brookdale Community College.
Teresa excelled in the rigorous coursework, earning the honor of Poseidon Valedictorian.
Part of the honor is the Valedictorian gives a speech at Neptune’s high school graduation ceremony. Teresa asked for guidelines and was told to simply describe her “Neptune High School experience.” She chose to include her rape by another student because that trauma colored several high school years. On the morning of Wednesday, June 21st, she attended the rehearsal for that day’s graduation ceremony. When she went up to the podium to pull her speech out of the folder containing all speeches, hers was missing.
Teresa approached Neptune High School principal Dr. Arlene Rogo, who told her that a meeting was planned for her and her mother to discuss Teresa’s speech. When Kinney came in for the meeting, Rogo told her allowing Teresa to speak “is too much of a risk” and “the content’s too risky.” Kinney replied, “you’re going to rob my child of this moment?” and proposed a compromise: Teresa would rewrite the speech and, if she strayed from approved text, her microphone would be turned off.
The compromise was accepted, the plan was in place, and Teresa was ready to begin her re-write. Suddenly district superintendent Tami Crader appeared in the room and announced, “No, Teresa is not giving the speech.” Kinney: “You’re going to silence my daughter because you’re afraid of bad press?” Crader replied, “yes.”
Later that day when the ceremony began, Teresa sat on the stage, her mother told me, “like she wasn’t even there,” rendered invisible by administrators. Other students giving speeches were able to declare where they would be attending college. But no one learned that Teresa, in fact, is heading to Middlebury College to major in women’s gender studies and political science in order to prepare for a career advocating for other women who suffer sexual assault.
Kinney says that at Neptune High School “no one gives a crap and it’s so frustrating for teachers too. Everyone says rules are changed based on “whoever across the street decides.”
What is across the street? Tami Crader’s office.