Community members express support for history teacher, criticize administration following protests

Cherry Hill students and parents requested the district to allow history teacher Timothy Locke to return to work after he was placed on administrative leave.

Those who came to Tuesday’s Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting hoping to receive information on Timothy Locke, a history teacher at Cherry Hill High School East who was placed on administrative leave, had a lot to say, but received few answers from the district.

Many of the speakers pleaded with the board to have Locke reinstated and were also critical of Cherry Hill East Principal Dennis Perry’s handling of the situation.

Locke confirmed with The Sun on Monday he was placed on administrative leave, but declined to comment further on the matter. Media reports and students say Locke was placed on administrative leave after a student became concerned about comments he made on school security at Cherry Hill East during a discussion about the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

District officials have declined to comment on Locke’s administrative leave, stating it was a personnel matter. Board of education president J. Barry Dickinson echoed this in a statement early in the meeting, adding much of the information discussed by the community hasn’t been based on any facts.

“This is a human resources matter and I can’t speak to the facts related to the case,” Dickinson said. “As such, and I want to be clear, there are no facts. Everything related to this matter is conjecture. An investigation is underway.”

“The protest on social media, the student walkouts and the broadcast news stories are all relying on conjecture and rumor,” Dickinson added later in his statement.

Superintendent Joe Meloche also noted the Cherry Hill Board of Education is the only body who can hire, fire or suspend employees. Locke’s name was not listed on the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting.

Numerous students talked about Locke’s candidness and his willingness to address current events and have deep, meaningful conversations in class.

“Mr. Locke once told me in AP World History class last year that if you see something that’s not right, say it and solve the problem,” Cherry Hill East senior Sammy Miller said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Lauren Atkin, Cherry Hill East’s alternate board representative, said the events from early in the week showed how much of an impact Locke has had on the student body.

“While I realize we don’t have all of the information regarding (Locke’s) removal, this is obviously something very important to the students at East,” Atkin said.

“The students have decided to fight for their teacher and for their security,” Atkin added.

Some speakers talked of Locke being suspended without pay, something board solicitor Paul Green refuted.

“By law, no individual employee of the school district can be suspended without pay,” Green said. “Any suspension, by statue, has to be with pay.”

Many students lashed out at Perry, saying he was disrespectful during each of the two days the student body protested. On both days, Perry invited students who were protesting into the school auditorium for a discussion. However, multiple students say their questions to Perry were ignored and felt they were disrespected.

“The meeting consisted of him avoiding questions, rolling his eyes, smirking at arguments he disagreed with, checking his phone, interrupting students and then telling us we were being disrespectful,” junior Melissa Meltzer said.

Students also felt the school has been ignorant of current events. Senior Julianna Martinez said the school failed to honor the victims of Sept. 11 on the anniversary of the attack and also never recognized the shooting in Parkland. Students who participated in the Tuesday walkout held a moment of silence for the victims of the Parkland shooting at the center of the football field and said it was the first time any such occurrence took place at the school.

“We did not have a moment of silence for 9–11 and we did not have a moment of silence for Parkland,” Martinez said. “The students took it upon themselves.”

Students also said Perry earlier in the week threatened to take away things such as senior trip and prom. Perry did not attend the board of education meeting, but did release a letter a few hours prior to the meeting. In the letter, Perry retracted his statements about withholding participating in senior trip, senior prom and graduation, and thanked the students for conducting themselves in a respectful manner.

Perry’s letter included a plan to increase student involvement in improving security, engaging in a letter writing campaign to students in Parkland, planning a school-organized walk on March 14, and more.

“We have amazing students who are passionate and involved,” Perry said in the letter. “As a school community, I welcome this opportunity to work together for real change.”

Parents also expressed their displeasure toward administrators for their handling of the protests and the lack of action on school security.

“Our administration … has no touch with the student body,” parent Scott Seligman said.

“It’s embarrassing, truly embarrassing, that you sit there, listen and do not set up true action plans,” parent Jerry Janove added.