NEW JERSEY — The mother of a Sparta High School junioraddressed the school board Monday night over an incident that she said resultedin her son being harassed by school officials over statements he made during theboard’s public forum session on Feb. 4.
The student, AnthonyMaitilasso, criticized the school’s student newspaper policy and theboard’s attempt to set up a random drug testing policy for students.
Astudent drug testing policy at the school would be a “doublestandard.” He told the board that because a former teacher was accused ofusing drugs on school grounds, teachers should be subject to testing as well.
Board Vice President Rich Sullivan said he corrected Maitilasso during theFeb. 4 meeting because the incident with the former teacher was only”alleged.”
A few days after Maitilasso addressed the board, hesaid he was called into the principal’s office and asked to retract hisstatements.
“They said what I did was inappropriate and that I couldeither retract or write a letter,” he said. “And if I didn’t Iwould see some legal troubles.”
Acting Principal Jim Bevere did notreturn calls to his office. But in an article published in Sunday’s NewJersey Herald he said, “When you make public statements, you should besure of the facts.” He also told the Herald that Maitilasso’smeeting with him was about what is appropriate to say in a public meeting — not to force Maitilasso to retract his statement.
MichaelSchiavoni, President of the Sparta Board of Education, said in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center that the board welcomespublic comments.
“As long as they’re not personal attacks onthe school board, administration or teachers, then generally we allow freedom ofspeech,” Schiavoni wrote.
Anthony’s mother, Mary AnnMaitilasso, said that in addition to Anthony being called to theprincipal’s office, the Sparta Police Department called her home after theFeb. 4 meeting and asked that she and Anthony come into the station and give anyinformation they have regarding Anthony’s claims about the former schoolteacher. She said she refused to go into the police department because her sondid nothing wrong.
“The school board said the incident was alleged– it was a factual incident,” she said. “[The administration]is just trying to make a spectacle out of [Anthony] so no other students willcome up to bat,” she said. “
Sparta Police Department Sgt. RonCasteel said the head of the teacher’s union asked the police departmentto investigate Anthony’s accusations against the former teacher.
“If [the student] is going to be making these blanket accusations,[the teacher’s union] wanted the matter investigated.” Casteel said.”He might have information that’s helpful to us.”
Severalmonths ago, Casteel said, a student reported seeing a teacher using narcotics inthe bathroom, but police concluded there was no merit to the complaint.
Maitilasso’s other complaint was that school officials have too muchcontrol over the student newspaper. Maitilasso said students are told what towrite about in The Spartan Ink, and that the journalism adviser has”hinted to the students” that school board officials have warnedthat controversial material could cause the paper to lose funding.
SpartaTownship Board of Education’s School Sponsored Publications policy saysthe principal must review the paper in advance of distribution but that thepaper can address controversial issues as long as it is objective.
TheSpartan Ink newspaper permission form, which students and their parents mustsign in order for them to participate, states, “Accepting theresponsibility and the honor of working on the newspaper also carries a specialtrust … to insure that nothing inappropriate, hurtful or derogatory gets intothe newspaper.”
The contract also says that by signing, studentsindicate that they will not put anything in paper that “may cause harm orembarrassment to the school or any individual.”
Newspaper adviserDavid DeCrescenzi did not return phone calls made to his office.
Sullivansaid Mary Ann Maitilasso addressed the board Monday night to say that her sondid not lie about being asked to retract his statement. She asked the board totake her son’s claims seriously and was concerned that the administrationwas “bullying” the students.
“That’s certainlysomething that we want to make sure is not happening,” Sullivan said.
As a result of Monday’s meeting, Sullivan said Superintendent ThomasMorton has been told to meet with Bevere and others who were in theprincipal’s office when Anthony was called in. Morton will report back tothe board with his findings.
Sullivan said the board has never toldstudents they could not write about certain subjects, and never had aconversation with the newspaper adviser. But the superintendent will also reportback to the board after speaking with that teacher.