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Police Remove Maskless Mothers from a Montgomery School Board Meeting, then Allow Them to Return

By Barbara A. Preston | November 29, 2021 | Updated December 2, 2021


School Board Vice President Zelda Spence-Wallace had to interrupt student presentations at the November 23 meeting to make an important announcement, which eventually resulted in Montgomery Township police escorting three mothers out of the meeting for not wearing masks.

Upper Middle School soccer team champion Abby Schwartz prepares to speak at the podium during the November 23 school board meeting. Montgomery parents, from left, Ania Wolecka-Jernigan of Belle Mead; a woman who only identified herself as a mother; and Gabriela Zayova of Belle Mead, refused to wear masks as they sat in the front row during a crowded meeting.

The board had invited parents and guests to the meeting to honor middle school athletes who won three state championships this season. Student Emma Radley had just finished speaking about “becoming a team,” the impact it had on her, and how winning the state soccer championship was a result, not a goal. Then, Vice President Spence-Wallace paused the meeting, and announced:


“Please be advised that, due to the behavioral modification we are participating in because of the pandemic, the Montgomery Township Board of Education has an expectation that in-person participants in our open public meeting will … wear a face covering pursuant to the NJ Executive Order 251,” she read.


Three maskless women sat in the front row of the Upper Middle School library, just next to the podium. Principal Cory Delgado offered a box full of masks to the women, saying: “We have some extra face masks here if you want one.” The mothers declined.


“I don’t know what you want to do about that,” Principal Delgado said to the school board.


A teacher in the audience said to the mothers, “Will you put masks on then? We are all wearing masks. You won’t wear a mask?”


“No,” responded Gabriela Zayova of Belle Mead.


The teacher responded, "So you really will not follow the state mandate to wear a mask in our school?"


One of the mothers spoke up and said: “Actually, the executive order speaks to children while they are in school, it doesn’t talk about after school.”


The teacher responded, "But wearing a mask here is respectful to all of us."


“No. I am not trying to respect you. I don’t care about being polite," Zayova said. "You don’t know me.”


The teacher responded, “So I do my best to respect and protect your child but you won't do that for the rest of us?”


Zayova said: "I don't think so."


At this point, Principal Delgado interrupted the discussion, saying: “We can only do so much.”

Two Montgomery police officers escort three maskless mothers from the Montgomery School Board meeting.

Spence-Wallace issued two more announcements during the meeting, before the Montgomery Township Police Department arrived on the scene and escorted the three women out of the meeting. The two officers, and the three mothers stopped to huddle at the entrance of the library in the Montgomery Upper Middle School.


A Montgomery News reporter attempted to join the conversation with the officers and the mothers, but police asked the reporter to go away.


From a seat near the huddle, the reporter heard the mothers telling the police that they had “civil rights” to not wear a mask. One of the mothers, Wolecka-Jernigan, played a video for police officers. The video was by Princeton civil rights lawyer Bruce Afran, she said.


Afran filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Free Kids in federal court in Newark in July against Gov Phil Murphy, the commissioner of education, and the commissioner of health on behalf of three sets of parents and a dozen high school students claiming that mask mandates are unconstitutional, and a violation of First Amendment rights.

Police officer in a huddle with three mothers who refused to wear masks at the school board meeting.

U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty reviewed case law presented by Afran regarding whether the masks place restrictions of any kind on speech. The judge denied the request on September 10 to block Gov. Phil Murphy’s mask mandate for schools, according to nj.com.


“I find that the state could reasonably rely on the guidance from CDC and other places to promulgate such a rule,” McNulty said in a hearing on September. “The mask rule is not aimed at expressive conduct. It is clearly a response to the infection rates, which are rising.”


Afran has said that he will continue to appeal the masking decision, and will go all the way to the US Supreme Court if necessary.


The Question Remains: Can Schools Enforce the Masking Mandate?

While it is unknown what exactly was discussed in the police huddle during the Montgomery school board meeting, the women were allowed to return to their seats sans masks. The two Montgomery police officers stayed for the remainder of the meeting to keep the peace.


Wolecka-Jernigan spoke to the board and public during the closing public comment session.


"I have to say, I'm a little embarrassed about the incident that occurred," she told the board, referring to the police incident. "I didn't expect that from this community. However, I am here to follow up on the lunches. The vendor is the same, and the lunches are still unacceptable. Also, the superintendent said an ad hoc group of folks would be be formed to collaborate. There was no follow up on that."


She continued on about school lunches, then got to the masking policy. "Part of the reason I am here, and I will continue showing up, is because I am looking for us to have choice.


"I know I am not the fair-haired person here, but I am happy to provide support," she added. "Our kids are having a hard time — educationally, socially, and health-wise. There is a lot of policing going on. This was a perfect example. If I'm an adult and I'm being treated this way, I can only imagine how the kids are being treating in school. I'm simply here to request a choice."

The Upper Middle School Boys Cross County Team were honored at the school board meeting for winning the state championship.

Board Vice President Spence-Wallace thanked Wolecka-Jernigan for speaking up.


"Thank you for holding us accountable," Spence-Wallace said. "Please understand that we as a board have been vehement in our communications about the food service — to provide food that is healthy and tastes good. It is very important to us. That is an area to which we are aligned."


Next, Gabriela Zayova of Belle Mead approached the microphone, maskless. She wanted to point out that she was uncomfortable coming to school board meetings, and she accused a teacher of threatening her and her offspring.


"Now I feel fearful for any parents who come here and try to speak for their children," she told the board. "The children are going to be targeted because the teachers are just going to look at their names and they will know who they are."


"The teacher who was sitting here next to me told me: 'I know your child,' after I refused to put a mask on," she said.


Members of the audience said they did not hear this threat. School Superintendent Mary McLoughlin attempted to assure Zayova that the safety of the students is "always paramount" in the Montgomery School District.


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Seeking Clarity. Can Police Enforce the Governor's Masking Mandate?

The Montgomery News reached out to the Montgomery Township Administrator Donato Nieman for clarity on the mask mandate. The Montgomery Police Department reports to him.

The following questions were asked:


1. Are Montgomery Police allowed to enforce Gov Murphy's Executive Order NJ Executive Order 251?


2. If not, does this mean that Montgomery police are not permitted to enforce the Montgomery School District's policy that requires students, employees, and all visitors to wear masks while on school premises?


3. Why did the police not remove the women from the meeting?


4. Does this mean that students, teachers, school bus drivers, and visitors to the schools can go maskless, without penalty? Does this set a precedent in Montgomery, and maybe statewide?


5. What will happen at the next school board meeting, with these women, and perhaps more people, attend the public meeting maskless? The women have already made it clear that they expect to attend the next meeting, maskless.

"These questions need to be answered by the board of education, I can’t speak to school policies / enforcement nor the end results of the discussions with the maskless attendees," Nieman said. "You may want to speak to Tom Wain [former Montgomery Township police director who is now] the head of school security, the BOE president, or the superintendent. It was a BOE meeting and they summoned our officers."


The school board policy seems clear. It was stated three times in the meeting. What is unclear, is whether it can be enforced, and, if so, how?


Becoming a Team

Perhaps Upper Middle School Student Emma Radley said it best.


“Through the season, we all worked very hard and helped each other improve,” Radley said. “That helped us become a team, and not just a group of individuals. The biggest impact for me was walking through the halls at school and supporting others who wore the same jersey as me. People I never would have met otherwise are now my friends."


Can Montgomery residents learn from Radley, work together, and become a team?




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