MIDDLETOWN, NJ — It was only this past Monday, July 27 that the candidates for Middletown Board of Education had to submit their names to be in the running for the Nov. 3 election. But already the political disagreements have turned vicious and personal, with accusations of anti-Semitism being made, and Middletown Police Chief R. Craig Weber even being called in.
Just Friday morning, this petition was launched asking a slate of three candidates to step down and remove themselves from the race. The slate is Jacqueline Tobacco, Frank Capone and Harmony Barry Heffernan, all first-time school board candidates who are running as the Putting Children First slate.
The Putting Children First slate is running on a general stance of reopening schools, at least partially. Tobacco also personally said she does not want to mandate masks for special-needs and other students, such as students with asthma.
What a number of Middletown parents take issue with are specific comments Tobacco and Heffernan made on Twitter and Facebook in the past few weeks. In the first, Tobacco retweeted a cartoon of Gov. Phil Murphy's face superimposed over a picture of Hitler.
"As a mother of an impressionable Middletown student, I was horrified at the posting," said one Middletown mom, Victoria Brian."It doesn't matter if it was sarcastic or not, the world is full of hate right now, and this type of comparison is not what should be made by any potential educational leader."
"If you're running for the Middletown Board of Education, you shouldn't be making those kinds of comparisons; it's not appropriate," said another Middletown mom of three, who did not want to use her name. "We have a lot of Jewish residents in Middletown. I'm sorry, but that's not the kind of people we want to be leading our children."
The second posting was a comment Heffernan made on a Facebook discussion about the now-infamous July 11 Middletown house party where as many as twenty teenagers were infected with COVID.
"Perhaps we should round up all the kids and throw them into a ghetto. Paint stars on there (sic) clothes and tattoo numbers on there (sic) arms just like the Nazis did in the '30s," he wrote. "Try to remember all those kids are scared and this how there (neighbors) behave?"
Heffernan, a graduate of Middletown South who has children in the district, talked to Patch Friday: "There was a very long Facebook thread with a lot of arguing and some of the parents were demanding that the parents of children who had gotten sick let them know who they were so they could post their names and addresses on local Facebook pages," he said. "It absolutely blew my mind. That's Gestapo-like behavior. We are talking about local parents taking it upon themselves to post names and addresses. To me, that's intimidation. It just blows my mind to read some of these posts and see the hatred from these people."
Tobacco, a mother of four children, gave a lengthy defense of herself when Patch asked her Friday afternoon to explain her re-Tweet.
Her personal Twitter account features many comments criticizing mask mandates. She also advocates to reopen schools, particularly criticizing teachers who do not want to return to class. Other tweets advocate for American freedom.
Tobacco stressed that she was not trying to make a comparison about Jews or the Holocaust, but instead was being critical of an authoritarian regime, which she said the Murphy administration has become.
"This is not a tweet or a cartoon I wrote or created; I just agreed with it and wrote 'Yup.' I am not saying Murphy is killing Jews not at all! And I am personally offended by people who think I'm anti-Jewish because of this," she said. "I am not trying to dismiss what happened to the Jews. If anything, I am being mindful of what has happened in authoritarian regimes when they are allowed to go unchecked. Murphy has used the pandemic as a power grab and is fear mongering and using irrational rules to keep businesses and schools closed."
"I have been very outspoken about Murphy for his draconian measures," she continued. "If we don't start to push back we are going to have our rights removed as free Americans."
"When I hear Murphy say things like we need 'an army of contact tracers;' when I see someone like DeBlasio tweeting a number to report your neighbors for being out after 8 p.m., that's when I get those feelings of, 'Is this still America?'
Patch asked Tobacco if she could see how some might see her re-tweet as extreme or offensive.
"It can be considered extreme but if you actually study history and see the very beginnings of how Nazism rose in Germany, you can see comparisons," she said. "We need to rise up against anything that shuts our freedoms down, arbitrarily. I understand the lockdown was needed. But now the lockdown is more damaging than COVID has been for a lot of children."
Tobacco also delved into her reasons for why she wanted to run for the Middletown Board of Education in the first place. She has four children, three of whom have gone through the Middletown public school system and graduated. Her youngest, a 15-year-old boy, has autism.
"I have been extremely pleased with the way his education was going at Middletown South," she said. "He was playing football for South; he was going out with friends after school to the diner."
She got choked up then.
"For a mom of a kid with autism, when you see your kid having just a little bit of that normal high school experience .... I get very emotional. I have nothing but praise for the Middletown school district so I am not anti- this school system at all."
Then COVID-19 struck. Her son went from having a cadre of teachers devoted to him to three to four Zoom sessions a day.
School shutdowns have been so hard on all parents and kids, but they hit special-needs kids especially hard, she said.
"For special-needs kids, it's been horrific. Behaviors started emerging in my son we haven't seen since he was a toddler. I've heard of special-needs kids punching holes in walls. His reading skills regressed," she said. "These kids need to go back to school."
Tobacco and her husband run a Middletown horse farm for kids with autism and special needs, called Peace, Love & Horses and she said she's heard from "as many as 60 special-needs families saying the same thing: Their kids are suffering."
"I was asked to run (for the school board) by multiple people," she said. "That's why I originally began to advocate for schools to reopen. It wasn't about politics at all; it was about kids."
That tweet, which she re-tweeted July 9, went public this week and the backlash against her on Facebook and Twitter spread like wildfire.
"In the past 24 hours, starting on Thursday night, I was completely attacked on social media. I started getting message and writing on the wall of my Peace, Love & Horses business page telling people I was a Nazi and telling them not to send their kids to my horse program because I'm a Nazi organizer," she said. "My 15-year-old autistic son is an administrator on that page and he saw firsthand all the messages attacking me and my non-profit. He was crying last night, saying they are going to kill the horses, set our house on fire, Mom, please don't run for the Board of Education."
"It was a concerted bombing effort."
She said she reported some of the social media messages to Middletown police Chief Weber Friday.
Tobacco said she absolutely thinks the coronavirus is real — "I had it back in January!" — and she supports mask-wearing for students and teachers if it means schools can reopen in some form.
"I might not be in love with the idea, but I also understand the need and the science for it," she said of mandated masks. "We are not going to be able to have school start if people are not wearing masks. I wear masks for when I go into the store. What I am against is mandatory masks for special -needs children. They have anxiety, they need to be able to see people's faces and lips move and facial expressions."
"If you want to keep your kids home, or send them back, you should have that choice. But there are people who want to take away that choice from us," she said. "Part of my feeling with all this is the entire sanctity of childhood has been walked on (with the COVID response). There was a teen at Middletown South who died of an overdose during the lockdown. I have another two friends whose sons tried to kill themselves during lockdown. The rates of depression and anxiety among kids is real. This is real collateral damage."
So far, the Putting Children First slate will continue to run.
"But I want to be clear that I do feel threatened and afraid right now," said Tobacco. "If people want to continue to attack my son's page ..." she trailed off.
"I want to speak out, but I have to weigh if that's worth people coming after my house and my family. Right now, I am not stepping down. But I am shocked and scared."
Craig Coenen, a history professor at Mercer County Community College, and the former director of the Mercer County Holocaust Commission, weighed in on why comparing the pandemic response to the Holocaust can be deeply offensive to some.
"It shows a lack of understanding and compassion for the victims of the Holocaust," he said. "If she disagrees with Murphy, fine, go ahead and criticize him. That is her right. But what Democratic governors are doing is not anything comparable to what Hitler and the Nazi party did in Germany in the 1930s, when they killed millions, and killed people just for disagreeing with them, as she is doing. That comparison, I believe, is anti-Semitic. It lessens the impact of what happened to people during the Holocaust."
"The Holocaust is unique," he said. "To make these comparisons takes away from its meaning, insults victims and survivors and their families, and leads to a normalization of the Holocaust. If everything is like the Nazis, then the Holocaust has lost its meaning."
The Middetown school board election will be Nov. 3, the same day as the U.S. presidential election.
There are three seats up for election, and ten candidates running for them. The candidates are:
Robin Stella (currently on the board, vice president, running to keep her seat)
Nicholas A. DiFranco (currently on the board, running to keep his seat)
Pamela Rogers (currently on the board, president, running to keep her seat)
Harmony B. Heffernan
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