By JOHN T. WARD
Reversing an action that sparked a civil rights complaint and community outrage, Red Bank Regional High School’s board of ed restored funding for an immigrants’ advocacy student group Monday night.
At special session in the Little Silver school’s cafeteria that drew a large crowd – including Red Bank’s entire governing body – speakers voiced support for the Dreamers Club while denouncing a lone board member’s vote that they said imperiled years of progress.
Dreamers Club advisor Marisol Mondaca, center, in the audience at the meeting. Below, board member John Venino, who again voted to deny funding for Mondaca’s position. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By a 6-1 vote, the board voted to fund the $2,256 annual stipend for Marisol Mondaca, member of the school’s SOURCE youth services arm, to serve as club advisor.
The action undid an August 16 vote by the board not to renew Mondaca’s advisory role. Though four members present last month voted in favor of the renewal, with three members absent and one seat vacant due to a resignation, the lone ‘no’ vote by John Venino left the Dreamers shy of the majority needed.
Following the August 16 vote, the link to the club’s page was removed from the school’s website, and Mondaca told its members that it was “no longer an official school club,” according to a press release it issued Friday.
Monday’s meeting came just days after the Dreamers Club filed a formal complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights alleging it has been “singled out for nine years” of discrimination.
In the complaint, filed on its behalf by attorney Jonathan Cohen, the club alleged it “has been continually singled out by the Board for reasons that can only be explained based on political ideology and the national origin/protected characteristics of the Dreamer Club and the population on behalf of which it advocates.”
At Monday’s session, a parade of speakers, including the self-styled “Dream 4,” four young Red Bank women who constitute the club’s executive committee, rallied behind the organization and took the district to task.
Club vice president Bethzy Vera-Varela said that immigrating to the United States, finding she did not fit in, and encountering bias took a toll on her mental health and made her ashamed of her heritage.
“It wasn’t until I joined the Dreamers Club that I finally became proud of my heritage, when I should have been proud all along,” she said. “My parents did not walk hundreds of miles, come all the way across the country, get treated the way they did, nor did my dad work two jobs, for me to be ashamed of where I came from,” she said.
The club, she said, “is the Latinos’ only representation in a predominantly white school.”
The August 16 vote “made it clear that the Dreamers are not welcome at RBR,” though 39 percent of Red Bank residents are Hispanic, said club secretary Madelyn Sanchez-Berra.
RBR alumnus Julie Flores-Castillo, who led the club and is now president of the Brookdale Community College Dreamers, said the organization “is the only club that has had to attend multiple meetings and beg for its existence,” despite having the largest number of minority group members among school clubs.
“One vote that night impacted work that we have done for seven years,” which includes providing a safe space for all students and community service, Mondaca told the board.
Superintendent Lou Moore and Principal Julius Clark “have always supported our club,” Mondaca said, and while “there are some individuals who do not support us, there are also many staff members and community members who do.”
Red Bank Deputy Mayor Kate Triggiano asked how it came to be that students are put in the position of having to provide translation services for school employees and carrying other burdens of adulthood.
“Why do immigrant and first-generation students need to create a ‘safe space’ for themselves?” she asked. “How did it become a child’s role to counsel their fellow students through the complex college application process? These young people have stepped up to deliver what their school has failed to deliver.”
Moore said the concerns raised by the Dreamers had “uncovered some deeper issues that we cannot walk away from. We need to make it clear to ourselves, to our students and to our community that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
He said he would form a committee of faculty, administrators, students and community members to frame a policy of “in support of equity and excellence.” The policy, he said, would create “binding” efforts “to understand the impact that discrimination and inequity have have on our community, and develop actions to fight it.”
As he did last month, Venino again voted against funding the advisor’s position. While most of the audience was departing during a break the meeting, he told redbankgreen he did so because “I believe in equality for all groups, all applicants for clubs.”
“The surfers, sailers, rugby students and young Republicans came seeking club membership,” he said, with few onlookers remaining after the session resumed. “They were denied, and told there wasn’t funding for them. So I’m just wondering if there’s been any outreach to those groups to help them get their clubs running.”
Moore responded “no outreach,” and Venino continued: “Since the Dreamers were approved, the Young Feminists have come seeking approval. What’s the status of that club getting up and running?”
Moore said there’s a formal process under which groups can seek club status, one followed by both the Dreamers and the Young Feminists.
“If the surfers would like to pursue that, they certainly can,” Moore said. “I haven’t reached out to them, because I’m not aware of their activities. The Dreamers were active for seven years. That’s the difference. But again, as a board member, you should consult our own policies.”
Moore and three board members sought to distance the board from Venino’s votes on the matter.
“Virtually all Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants,” said Moore. “But periodically, misplaced anger and hatred have influenced attitudes towards immigrants and distorted the positive role that immigrants play in American life.”
He urged the board to “strike a blow against intolerance, insensitivity and ignorance” by approving his recommendation to reappoint Mondaca, whom he praised for “superb leadership” as club advisor.
At the meeting’s outset, board President Patrick Noble said its majority was prepared “to swiftly rectify the situation we’ve all been unwillingly placed in.” And member Memone Crystian apologized to the Dreamers for having missed the August meeting due to illness.
“When I found out what transpired, I was even more sick,” she said. “But in retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t in the room. Because had I been in the room, the vote wouldn’t have gone that way, and this [meeting] wouldn’t have happened. You wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate just how much of leaders you truly are.”
John Garofalo, a 21-year board, member, also apologized to the Dreamers “for having to go through this.” He recounted his own experience as an immigrant to the United States in the 1950s, leaning on a “support group” of cousins he hadn’t previously met and learning to speak English.
“You girls are tougher than me,” Garofalo said. “You proved that tonight, so I applaud you.”
Noble, Crystian and Garofalo represent Red Bank, which has five seats on the nine-member board. Venino is one of two members from Little Silver; two others are from Shrewsbury.
Video of the meeting is here.
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