OCEAN CITY — Wearing matching red T-shirts, about 35 people gathered along the sidewalk across from The Flanders Hotel on Friday evening, carrying signs calling for a fundamental change in the city's schools.
Inside the historic hotel, a gala honored Superintendent Kathleen Taylor, who will retire after 15 years leading the district.
Alumni, former and present teachers and parents of current students participated in the protest. One of the former students said the protest was organized by some former teachers. They carried signs that said, “Kids not accolades” and “Bye-Bye Taylor.”
Several participants asked that their names not be used, saying they feared retaliation within the district, either against them or against family members. Some of those attending hid their faces when photographs were taken.
The participants brought up a variety of complaints against the outgoing superintendent, primarily that she failed to address persistent issues with bullying and other problems. Some of those issues were brought forward anonymously through an online petition created this spring, which quickly received more than 3,000 signatures.
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One of the participants, former Ocean City student Brianna Thomas, said the administration is more focused on appearances than in helping students. She and other former students said problems at the district’s three schools were swept under the rug instead of being addressed.
“We wanted to come out and be seen because we don’t believe the current administration has focused on student wellbeing or on the students’ mental health,” Thomas said. “It starts at the top.”
Other participants said the district should be paying more attention to student needs than celebrating the superintendent. At one point, a banner plane circled the area with a banner proclaiming, “Enough is Enough! Back to caring for the kids!”
Some school officials and others could be seen entering The Flanders. Police stationed officers in front of the main entrance, but there was little interaction with the protesters across the street, except for one officer on a bicycle who came to speak to one of the protesters and state Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, an Ocean City native who gave a warm greeting to many of the participants — and to the police officers — before heading inside to the gala.
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Taylor did not speak to the protesters and was not seen entering the event. Thomas said the participants would have been respectful if they saw her passing by, saying it was not the proper forum for an interaction.
Taylor did not respond to a call requesting comment on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon, a public relations firm released a statement via email on behalf of the Board of Education.
“We have no additional comments other than to say the event held last night was a fundraiser held by a private organization to raise funds to benefit the creation of outdoor wellness centers at each of the schools for the students,” the email from JASM Consulting read.
The statement commended those involved in the online petition for exercising their right to free speech and outlined multiple steps taken to improve conditions at the school, including some going back decade.
“Beginning in 2011, we brought in professional trainers, including a prosecutor, to educate our staff about teacher-student relationships, discrimination, boundary limits for staff and harassment,” the statement reads.
In announcing her retirement in a letter to the school community April 16, Taylor praised the school faculty and staff, saying they all worked to make the district the best it could be.
“From my first day as a teacher through the last day of my career, I never waver in my focus on who is most important — the students,” she wrote. She said she was dedicated to the well-being and advancement of all students.
In 2017, Taylor was named New Jersey’s Superintendent of the Year.
At a meeting of the Board of Education this spring, board President Joseph Clark read a statement promising to address the allegations of bullying, sexual assault and other concerns raised in the online petition.
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“We have and will continue to fully cooperate and provide access to the Police Department and/or the county Prosecutor’s Office for any impending investigation,” he said. At the same meeting, he announced a board committee that would launch a national search for Taylor’s replacement, with a plan to have an interim superintendent for a year before the candidate is offered the job.
Clark also discussed additional training in staff and student relationships, discrimination and harassment, and outlined school programs aimed at improving student safety and well-being.
The protesters on Friday argued the efforts were aimed at improving appearances rather than addressing issues or helping students. They said they want more community involvement in the search for the next superintendent, including input from students and alumni.
As more people gathered for the gala, protesters began to drift away on the cool June evening, with most dispersing as the first drops fell in what would be a soaking thunderstorm rolling in from the west.
NOTE: This story was updated Sunday afternoon with a comment from the Board of Education. The complete statement from the board is attached to this story.