Gundersen addresses graduation concerns at BOE meeting

The Board of Education answered concerns raised by parents regarding a graduation ceremony at its virtual meeting Monday night held on Zoom.

“We want to make sure that we are honoring the recognition that those students deserve,” district Superintendent Erik Gundersen said. “We are working with our Bergen County Executive Superintendent and other school districts to make sure that we’re establishing some common guidelines on what a hybrid graduation ceremony would look like.”

We want to make sure that we are honoring the recognition that those students deserve”

— District Superintendent Erik Gundersen

Gundersen said the district does not have any plans to hold a graduation after June 16 since governor Phil Murphy’s office has not made a decision on the matter. 

“As of graduation evening, the students that have satisfied all of the requirements and have graduated from Pascack Valley or Pascack Hills High School, are no longer our students,” Gundersen said. “That’s why the project graduations are out of the control of the high school district as well. That’s 100% parent driven since once graduation takes place, that’s it.” 

Gundersen said some possibilities of a graduation could be students in cars coming to Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills to pick up a diploma, or administrators might deliver diplomas to the students’ homes.

“There are so many other activities such as athletic signing day, decision day, awards, yearbook signing,” Leanne Menendez, River Vale resident said. “Just hearing the words that you’re working on something is not reassuring, it’s a little unsettling. I feel that we should be getting a little more communication to understand what’s going on.”

River Vale residents Kristie Levine and John Cuti voiced their concerns regarding the recognition that seniors would receive if there was not a traditional graduation. 

“For a lot of us, it isn’t the first time sitting at a board meeting, and it wasn’t until about 8:45 p.m. that you addressed the most important thing in the next thirty days to take care of — the graduation of the 2020 class,” Cuti said. “I know you’re sending out emails and updates, but this type of event on Zoom with parents of the Class of 2020, I think would be well received.”

Gundersen said he will be informing parents and students of the status of various end of year activities, including senior prom, senior awards, yearbook signing ceremony, and senior trips, once he is given guidance.

We are going to make it as special as we possibly can for our students. We are going to do our best to celebrate their accomplishments.”

— District Superintendent Erik Gundersen

“We are going to make it as special as we possibly can for our students,” Gundersen said. “We are going to do our best to celebrate their accomplishments.”

Gundersen said that the district is taking all suggestions made by faculty, students, and parents through email into account. However, Gundersen said that it would be “incredibly premature” to make an announcement since there are many unknowns. 

“Whether it’s something close to a traditional ceremony, or something a little bit different and unique based on the circumstances,” Gundersen said. “We recognize how important graduation is. It is the best night of the year.”

Business Administrator Pamela Baxley also gave a budget proposal for the 2020-2021 school year that was approved by the board. Since Baxley is retiring at the end of the year, Yas Usami was approved to fill the position. 

Gundersen, BOE address Indian head logo t-shirt 

A t-shirt created by a Pascack Valley parent with the Indian head logo and mask prompted community members to speak during the public comment portion.

“By opting to only avoid the use of Indian graphic but keeping the mascot the Indian, this sends a rather convoluted message to the public,” One Spirit Co-President Olivia Jones said. “The lack of a definitive stance by the district regarding this issue has sparked enormous controversy in the student body, as well as parents and alumni in the Pascack Valley community.”

Jones addressed the current district practice of “phasing out” the usage of the Indian head logo involving school-funded organizations and purchases.

By opting to only avoid the use of Indian graphic but keeping the mascot the Indian, this sends a rather convoluted message to the public.”

— One Spirit Co-President Olivia Jones

“The ultimate alleviation would be to change the mascot altogether, and we ask you to please seriously consider this,” said Rachel Cohen, One Spirit co-president and Smoke Signal editor in chief. “While the district prides itself on equity and inclusivity, it is still associated with a stereotypical and racist image. Without such action, the district will continue to be vulnerable, as technically the Indian is still the mascot but we are not allowed to utilize it.”

Gundersen said the t-shirt is not endorsed by the district and will encourage the seller to stop the sale.

“We have not been approving any apparel with the Indian head logo on it for quite some time,” Gundersen said. “I can understand why it’s offensive. We are looking into seeing what type of proprietary rights we have as a school district. We don’t know where the funding is going for those shirts.”

Before the meeting, One Spirit released a statement on Twitter urging the community to stop using the Indian head logo.