Following the controversial response to the first reading of its new naming policy for facilities, including athletic fields, the West Windsor-Plainsboro district has amended the language of the policy and removed a reference to suicide. The board approved the amended policy on Tuesday, October 2, by a unanimous vote.
WW-P School Board President Hemant Marathe said the new version attempts to set guidelines for recognizing individuals.
“The policy is meant to recognize people who have made a contribution to the district. The discussion that happened at the last meeting [on September 11] was tangential to specific causes of death and how that should be recognized. At least in my mind, that was not the intent of the policy. In the new version, all references to causes of death or whether somebody has died have been removed, and it focuses on how a person should be recognized,” Marathe said.
At the September 11 meeting, Tricia Baker, the mother of former North student Kenny Baker, who died in 2009, expressed her concern that the district was not doing enough to recognize the issue of suicide. “Our district needs to take suicide seriously and create a traumatic loss policy. They don’t want to wait until there is a dead student bleeding in the hallways to figure out what they need to do. Our district is not above this happening. Three suicides in three years is nothing to ignore,” she wrote in an E-mail to the WW-P News.
Marathe said the naming policy was not intended to be a referendum on suicide. “People can have different opinions on suicide, but that has nothing to do with whether or not a person should be recognized,” he says.
Marathe also explained the five-year waiting period to take formal actions towards naming a field after someone. Five years after the time a person either retires, graduates, leaves the district, or dies, their name can come up for recognition with the potential of naming a facility after them. Marathe said this is similar to some sports, music, or professional organizations’s hall of fame standards.
Baker’s comments to the school board on September 11 initiated the changes to the new policy. Not only was the section on suicide removed, but as she had requested, the board added a non-discrimination clause written by Alan Berman, executive director of American Association of Suicidology. The clause removes any stigma associated with the “manner of death” for a person who could potentially be honored through naming a facility.
“We are happy that we have been able to make a change in the policy. All of the discriminatory language has been removed,” Baker said.
Not everyone, however, was happy with the new policy. In public comment at the October 2 meeting, one speaker was Pete Weale, who has been advocating that the High School North baseball field renamed in honor of David Bachner, a star pitcher who died of a heart ailment in the summer following his senior year. Citing the policy of waiting five years “after the individual’s death (or the end of the formal association with the district)” Weale asked the board to “justify the magic of five years.”
Robert Johnson, vice president of the board, replied. “We spent quite some time on this. I’m not alone in not wanting to rush into something.” He added that the original draft of this policy called for 10 years. There was a consensus that 10 years might be too long, that five years was a reasonable period.
“No one is pretending that five years is a magical number. It’s certainly not something that is lightly thought up, but five years is a period where we would have a reduction in the haste,” Johnson said. “This policy reflects a sense that the name that you give to a facility can both reflect and shape civic values. It’s a good thing to commemorate achievement and accomplishment and historical significance.”
Richard Kaye, a member of the board, said there should be ways the district can honor people who have made significant contributions. He said he believes it is important to honor people without necessarily having to name a facility after them. “That’s my dilemma,” Kaye said
“We have lots of ways to honor people, but that final thing of a building being forever — a field forever — to me is almost out of proportion,” Kaye said.
Carolyn Steber provided additional reporting for this story.