Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 26, 2022 / 03:05 am (CNA).
Seven students have been suspended from Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey — and seven “extended detentions” given, with more disciplinary measures possibly to come — after a rowdy pro-abortion protest by students resulted in the physical and verbal assault of a sophomore holding a pro-life sign.
Jeffrey Moore, the school’s superintendent, acknowledged the “distressing” behavior of the pro-abortion students toward 16-year-old Nichole Pagano at a live-streamed school board meeting on May 23. But he was still severely criticized at the meeting for the way the situation was handled.
At the meeting, Moore gave a presentation about the protest, which took place on May 16.
“I want to reiterate, certainly the most distressing moments of this incident were in the behavior that was shown to counter-protesters who had arrived and those involved,” he said.
“Shoving, expletive-laden verbal aggression, vandalism to signs, signs were knocked over, thrown, kicked, all of those things that made this a most distressing and disrespectful scene and example of student behavior against a student there who showed up with another viewpoint.”
Nichole speaks out
Nichole told CNA on May 24 that when she and her senior sister Vanessa, both Catholics, saw around 200 students forming a pro-abortion protest in the middle of the school’s campus during class hours, they immediately felt a call to action: they needed to stand up for the unborn. And they did.
As Nichole walked around the protest holding a pro-life sign that said “Equal Rights For Babies in the Womb,” she was physically attacked and screamed at by students.
Nichole, of Readington Township, recalled: “There’s like 200 kids there and then all of a sudden they come surrounding us — mostly trying to come at me and attack me because I had the sign — and then they came at me all up in my face, verbally screaming at me, and physically even grabbed me and ripped me down.”
Nichole said that her 18-year-old sister was the only person protecting her, “trying to get these kids away from me and almost pushing them off of me, off my arm, and blocking them so they wouldn’t get my sign.”
Nichole said that after the protest she had scratches on her arm and legs, and her shoulder hurt. Her father, Michael Pagano, described the shoulder injury as being a “sore shoulder.”
Superintendent Moore said at the board meeting that some school and town police officers “were attached near that student so that she would have that presence nearby as we continue to work to dissipate the crowd.”
After he said this, someone could be heard yelling from the crowd: “That’s a lie!”
Nichole told CNA that the school’s principal Edward Brandt apologized to her at a school board meeting on the day of the protest. Moore also publicly apologized to her.
Referring to Brandt’s apology, she said that “it didn’t seem like too big of an apology, though. It kind of seemed like a quick, short, little apology. It didn’t seem very long and even that concerning.”
She added that after the apology, she “didn’t hear anything from anyone,” adding that the school didn’t contact her parents. Her father confirmed that no one had contacted him or his wife, Jennifer, as of May 25.
Nichole spoke publicly at the May 16 board meeting about the “hurtful” events that occurred that day.
She told CNA that when she saw the protest, she was baffled that students thought it was acceptable to protest in favor of abortion, especially in school.
“Like, do they really know what that is? I don’t think enough of them even know exactly what it is and how it works,” she said.
Nichole said that if she were to give other high school students advice on how to deal with similar situations, she would say: “You’ve got to just do what your heart says and what you believe in. You’ve got to do what’s right.”
“Even if it’s sometimes hard to do, you go to do it to make a stand and make a point.”
School board members scolded by the public
At the most recent school board meeting, the school’s handling of the situation was criticized multiple times, with one man even calling for Moore’s job termination.
The critical comments included a statement from a New Jersey state assemblyman Erik Peterson, who represents the 23rd Legislative District, including parts of Hunterdon.
Explaining that he was present at the meeting “in solidarity with the parents,” Peterson said that Nichole “is the victim, not the ‘counter-protester.’ She was assaulted. It’s on video.”
“The problem, from my perspective, is the leadership,” he said. “These kids didn’t learn this on their own, they learned it here. And it starts with this board and the superintendent.”
Peterson called Moore’s presentation “disrespectful to everybody in this room and to this board, to everybody, and to the victim.”
Asked if the school had checked in with Nichole to ensure her future safety and well-being, a school spokesperson said in a statement: “We are deeply distressed by the behavior between students who engaged in verbal and, in a very small number of instances, physical aggression during this gathering.”
“Youth demonstrations have a long history of educating students toward civic-mindedness; however, the behavior in this demonstration was disrespectful and distressing enough to be an affront to that tradition of peaceful assembly and protest. We are investigating thoroughly and taking all appropriate disciplinary actions.”
The statement went on: “This demonstration brings us to serious reflection on the procedures we have for managing such events and, most especially, on the examples that we, as adults, are setting for our children.”
“The actions that they see taken by adults impact the actions that they believe to be appropriate and acceptable.”
The statement concluded: “As we move to correct their behavior, we must work together to offer better object lessons. We must provide outlets for expression, but these need to be exercised with care, respect, and dignity for ourselves and one another. We need to teach these lessons of civil discourse to our children in much more deliberate ways, especially in these times.”
“At Central, we will continue to insist on respect in all civic and political processes and hope that this contributes to a future in which there is better and more constructive civic participation. We are thankful for the partnership with our community in that effort.”
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