RBR STUDENTS PROTEST RESPONSE TO PRAYER
According to one account, hall monitor Joel Gray, below, was placed on administrative leave after engaging Jazmin Graham, center above, in prayer. She said she had sought Gray’s counsel. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
For the second school day in a row, Red Bank Regional students staged a demonstration Monday afternoon to protest the school’s purported suspension of an aide for engaging students in prayer.
To date, there’s been no official confirmation of any type of action against 32-year-old hall monitor Joel Gray. Tom Pagano, the interim superintendent at the Little Silver school, declined to discuss Gray’s status with redbankgreen late Friday, citing the privacy of personnel matters. Gray himself has not returned phone messages.
But as they had on Friday, more than a dozen students, placards in hand, stood at the corner of Harding Road and Ridge Road Monday shortly after dismissal, chanting their support for a school employee they say has been mistreated by the administration.“He made me feel very safe and comfortable with who I am,” said junior Corey Van Huff, of Neptune. “I feel very hurt by the decision,” he said, calling it “profoundly wrong.”
According Gray’s brother Eli, a senior at the school, Joel Gray was placed on administrative leave about a week ago for praying with a student.
Though Gray was said to have prayed with numerous students, and offered quiet counsel to many others in one-on-one encounters, Eli Gray said the administration’s action may have been triggered by a complaint registered after his brother was seen holding the hands of senior Jazmin Graham as he prayed with her in one of the school’ corridors.
Graham, of Lake Como, told redbankgreen that she did not know if the disciplinary action arose as a result of that encounter, which she said was the first and only time she had prayed with Gray at school. But she said she was having some health issues and sought him out, knowing he could be relied upon for guidance and optimism.
“He held my hands, and he prayed out loud. I was silent,” the senior said.
“I know he talks to a lot of students about their problems,” said Graham, who wants the school to reinstate Gray. “I think as long as he’s not harming anyone, it’s not a problem, because he does what he does to help people. These are people whose lives he has impacted,” she said of the protesters.
Eli Gray said he, too, has held his brother’s hands in prayer in the school hallways, and that his brother is often seen reading a Bible during quiet times at school. But the older Gray doesn’t proselytize, Van Huff said.
“The prayer wasn’t forced on anyone,” he said. “You go an request it, and he’s always there to lend a hand. He doesn’t force anything on anybody.”
Nikki Van Huff, Corey’s mother, said she was glad to know that students could turn to someone like Gray, rather than keeping their problems to themselves and perhaps committing suicide.
A school employee leading a student in prayer on school grounds “is not something I have a problem with,” she said. Gray, she added, is “one of the first people you see when you come through the doors here as a freshman. He’s a very positive person and he makes the vibe here welcoming.”
Students seek out Gray, she said, because they know that he “doesn’t judge you by your outward appearance. For a young person to be able to discern that’s what’s going on says a lot about the man’s character.”
Protesters said they plan to attend the next meeting of the school’s board of education, scheduled for May 18 at 8 p.m., to learn Gray’s fate and support him.