Students and parents who recently attended a Hudson County Schools of Technology board meeting questioned why trustees unanimously (8-0-1) voted to lay off one of two music teachers, Jacob Lawson, who is slated to be let go on Jan. 31.
Despite the fact that the Nov. 1 meeting was held at midday, scores of parents and students turned out to protest the decision during a lengthy public hearing just before the vote. They also questioned why he is slated to be let go in the middle of the school year, rather than after the end of the 2019-2020 year.
High Tech High School currently provides students with a Performing Arts Program that focuses on dance, drama, music/audio technology, and musical theater. Students must audition in 8th grade for one of the four specialties. Lawson was involved in all four.
At press time, more than 1,200 people signed an online petition created by Stuart Culpepper requesting that the board retain Lawson. Roughly 900-1,000 students attend High Tech High School.
“Mr. Lawson is a highly qualified music instructor who has been a vital asset to the Performing Arts Program,” the petition says. “Mr. Lawson’s role in educating our students in how to prepare for their future as singers and musicians is invaluable.”
The petition goes on to state that this isn’t the first decision those involved in the performing arts program objected to.
“As parents, we are alarmed by what we see as a systematic dismantling of this wonderful program for our students,” the petition says.
At the meeting, the board’s trustees said that they reached their decision to terminate Lawson, who was not tenured, after they conducted a financial analysis.
“We are restructuring as a district overall, we are restructuring all of our programs,” Superintendent Amy Lin-Rodriguez said at the meeting. “A lot of it unfortunately is due to budgetary constraints, which no member of this board has any control over.”
Lawson objected to the facts presented in that analysis, claiming that he works with more students than what the analysis suggested.
Students held a sit-in
In the morning, prior to the board meeting in which Lawson was terminated, students held a sit-in. School administrators reportedly called officers from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office. No students were detained or arrested.
A source who spoke to The Hudson Reporter under condition of anonymity said that, even though the student protest was carried out under guidelines recommended by the American Civil Liberties Union, Vice Principal William Mattei threatened to have police officers arrest students. The source provided audio of Mattei’s remarks captured by a student participating in the sit-in.
“You’re causing a safety issue,” Mattei said. “I’m going to give you all five minutes to decide what you want to do. You have five minutes to decide to go back to class. If I have to bring the sheriff’s officers in here to arrest each and every one of you for causing this disturbance, I will.”
Mattei went on to say that while he appreciated the students’ right to protest, that they were “causing a disturbance” and “making a safety issue.”
Through a spokesperson, the district distanced itself from what Mattei said to those participating in the sit-in.
“The administration accepted their demonstration but after consulting with security, students were asked to either return to class or move to the cafeteria as to not create a fire hazard,” HCST spokesperson Caitlin Mota told several members of the press.”Unfortunately, an employee of the district used a poor choice of words in asking students to leave the hallway. His statement in no way reflects the mission of HCST, and the administration is already taking appropriate action.”