July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Investigation Finds ‘A Highly Unfortunate Error’ Behind East Brunswick Yearbook Snafu

An outside investigation into how a photo of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) was swapped for a photo of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) in the East Brunswick High School (EBHS) yearbook concluded it was “a highly unfortunate error” by the “lead” yearbook advisor.

Yaacov Brisman of Brisman Law in Passaic submitted a 14-page report, in which names of students and staff were redacted, that said the advisor “expressed deep remorse at her error and sadness that her mistake caused the uproar.”

He said she took responsibility for the mix-up, “was visibly distressed when discussing the possibility that she might have done this purposefully” and vehemently emphasized she bore “no ill will for any group of people.”

At a board meeting held on June 20, schools superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski stressed there was no student involvement in the mishap which brought unwanted national media coverage and triggered an outpouring of “hateful rhetoric” against both Muslim and Jewish students. Both groups had complained at a lengthy board meeting two weeks earlier they had been targeted. Jewish students said they were the latest incidents of long-standing systemic antisemitism at the school.

“I want to report no students, and I repeat no students, were responsible,” said Valeski citing the “baseless accusations” directed at both Jewish and Muslim students and adding, “I want to take this opportunity to offer an apology to the East Brunswick community for what this situation has caused and especially to all the students at East Brunswick High School for what this situation has caused them and how it impacted the end of their school year.”

Brisman said he found the advisor “credible” and noted, “I have no basis to find that she acted out of any animus, racial, religious or political, toward Jewish or Muslim students … I find that the lead advisor was at best careless, but her actions can also be considered negligent,” he wrote. “She should have exercised greater attention to detail when selecting the photograph. She admittedly only ‘assumed’ it was the correct photograph.”

The report said that historically the Coptic Club, MSA and JSU have been commingled in a shared folder, all of which were assigned three keywords — including the tag MSU/JewishSU. When the yearbook advisor conducted a search for “Jewish” to find a JSU photo, the one of the MSA came up. The advisor just “assumed” it was the correct photo. Additionally, it said although an editor had contacted the JSU’s advisor to request a photo and roster, none was provided.

Brisman made several recommendations for ensuring the mistake is not repeated, including a training program for lead advisors, creating a detailed checklist and timeline for information needed for each page, creating a process where the high school principal or their designee review and sign off on each page and requiring club advisors provide timely information requested by yearbook staff.

The incident brought to light tensions in the diverse community. Some in the Muslim community said they were upset that Mayor Brad Cohen in his initial statement called the incident “a blatant act of antisemitism” before knowing the facts. Cohen issued a second statement stating, “In no way was I ever implying that I had determined blame or intentionality,” adding he deplored the attacks against Muslims, Jews, yearbook students and advisors and school administration.

“I am relieved that, in the final analysis, there was no proof of any intentionality regarding race, religion or political views directed at the Jewish or Muslim students,” he said in another statement released after Brisman’s report. “That would have been extremely disheartening for a community that prides itself on its diversity and acceptance.”

Cohen said the municipality would be working with schools and leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities and that he was now engaged with the township’s clergy council to facilitate discussion groups, social events and programs.

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, whose leaders sat through the previous meeting where Jewish students said the high school has long had an antisemitism problem and an increasing onslaught of anti-Jewish hate since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, also issued a statement.

“We noted the report contains inconsistencies, leaves unanswered questions as to the progression of events and reinforces concerns about the context in which events took place,” wrote Executive Director Susan Antman and President Murray Katz. “However, the yearbook incident has brought the larger issue of systemic antisemitism at this and other area schools into the clear light of day, a sad but important turning point that needed to happen and now has. We can view that as a positive.”

They said Federation is now working more directly at the local and state levels to ensure schools combat hate and said Valeski has promised to begin working with Federation over the summer to address bias at the school. Even before issuance of the report, Federation had arranged for students who had experienced antisemitism at EBHS and Marlboro Middle School in Monmouth County to meet on June 20 with Sen. Vin Gopal, (D-Dist. 11), chair of the state Senate’s Education Committee.

Only a small handful of residents showed up at the June 20 meeting as compared to the crowd that spoke for hours two weeks earlier.

Jack Levitt, president of the East Brunswick Education Foundation, said its grants committee “strongly recommended” it make an exception to its charter, which states it won’t fund items that should be covered by the district budget, in order to underwrite some diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. The foundation is a community based nonprofit that raises money for grant items not included in the district budget that enhance and enrich the curriculum.

Resident Beth Hoffman, like some others, questioned the accuracy of Brisman’s report considering the number of steps already required in assembling the yearbook.

“I am outraged and have been for the last two weeks since the last board meeting when Jewish students got up one after another and discussed what the atmosphere at East Brunswick High School has been like, especially since Oct. 7,” she said. “There has been so much bullying and harassment going on and although these students reported the acts to staff nothing was done. I would like to know if there had been any consequences to the staff that did nothing with these complaints or to the principal who allowed this environment to fester.”

In response to resident comments at meetings, social media and in the press, Board President Laurie Lachs noted, “It’s very easy to take potshots, but the reality is this has been a very hard time for this community and instead of people coming together you’ve had people, predators, out there that have used people’s pain to try and throw stones and to make issues that didn’t need to be.”

A visibly upset Lachs said in reference to the many complaints about the nationwide negative publicity the incident had generated that no one on the board had called the press and “we had no choice” but to respond to media inquiries. She said the board and school officials had devoted a significant amount of time to deal with the yearbook and other issues.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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