New Bedford School Committee Members on Student Protest Against Oliver
Three members of the New Bedford School Committee spoke out on WBSM Friday about the controversial Facebook posts by newly-elected Ward 3 City Councilor Shawn Oliver and the protest organized against him at New Bedford High School by LGBTQ+ and allied students.
School committee member and New Bedford police officer Chris Cotter spoke against the student demonstration Friday afternoon on WBSM's The Barry Richard Show. Cotter said the protest should not have happened during school hours.
"In my opinion, there is a time and place for what is being identified as a protest," Cotter said. "I don't believe in walkouts for an issue that has nothing to do with schools."
With respect to the Facebook posts shared by Oliver, Cotter appeared to downplay their purported offensiveness.
"This an individual who was running for public office, who in his Facebook had a meme, a picture, whatever people want to refer to it as, and it was offensive to a group," Cotter said. "But again, it's not offensive to a group, it's only offensive to an individual who is being made aware of it by an individual who pushed this to make it that much more of a media frenzy."
Cotter, a former School Resource Officer, also criticized the students' demand to remove SROs from schools.
Cotter suggested that local activist group the Coalition for Social Justice organized the protest. He based his accusation on the fact that the group originally resurfaced Oliver's posts and that they have long advocated for the removal of SROs in schools.
It was later learned that two students organized the protest on their own, with help from one of their mothers.
School committee members Ross Grace and Melissa Costa spoke in favor of the student protests, and against Oliver's posts, during separate Friday evening appearances on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight.
Grace, a longtime educator and community activist, praised the students for what he identified as civic engagement and the courage to publicly express themselves.
"When our students are being conscious of what's going on in their community, when they are being conscious of the words, the actions, and thoughts of city officials and they become an active participant, that's how democracy works. That's how our system works," he said.
Grace made it a point not to call out Oliver by name, but called the Facebook posts "hurtful" and said that city officials must exercise caution with the things they say publicly because of the power that they wield.
"Obviously those young adults out there were hurting, and they're concerned about how the thoughts and ideas of city officials will shape their policies," he said.
"I would hope this an opportunity for us as city officials, whether it's the city council or school committee, to open our ears and be willing to grow, and be willing to move on from biases or things that are just hurtful to other people," Grace said.
Costa similarly praised students for organizing the protest on Friday, and strongly condemned Oliver for his Facebook posts.
"I want the youth of the city to know that I stand in solidarity and community with them as they exercise their constitutional right to peacefully organize and protest against the homophobic, transphobic, and misogynist posts by Councilman Oliver," she said.
Costa attended the protest and said it was "peaceful, energizing, and exciting." She praised school administration and faculty for their handling of it. Costa later told WBSM that she was able to register 20 students to vote.
Costa said that while at the event, she and other people at the protest observed Oliver drive by several times, as well as park his car and watch the demonstration, but said he never approached the students. Costa said this was a missed opportunity for Oliver to apologize, but he still has the chance to do so.
Costa, a social worker, said that LGBTQIA+ youths are at a higher risk of attempting and completing suicide because of how they are treated publicly and stigmatized by society. Because of this, Costa said, the memes shared by Oliver shouldn't be downplayed.
"I saw these memes," she said. "They were horrific. They were disturbing, and to know that our youth saw this and they see someone standing there to represent them in this light was extremely disturbing."
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, chair ex officio of the school committee, has yet to comment on the protest but previously condemned Oliver's posts.
“I have reviewed the crude images posted on Facebook by City Councilor-elect Shawn Oliver that purport to comment on transgender rights. I want to make clear that I categorically condemn the postings. Coming from an individual who is about to assume public office, they are especially abhorrent," Mitchell said. "New Bedford has long distinguished itself as a city that honors and protects the rights of all of its residents, and the messages conveyed by the postings are antithetical to our core values. No matter how long ago the postings appeared, it is imperative that the councilor-elect repudiate them. The residents of the city and particularly Ward 3 need to be confident that he is committed to serving everyone.”
School committee members Bruce Oliveria, Colleen Dawicki and Jack Livramento could not be reached for comment.