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PISCATAWAY, NJ—The Piscataway School Superintendent, Frank Ranelli, recently denied tenure to Dr. Cassia Mosdell, the T. Schor Middle School psychologist, sparking backlash from students, parents, and community organizations.
Her advocacy for LGBTQ+ students and students who have been the victims of bullying is at the center of the controversy. Mosdell was the advisor for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and widely considered an ally to the school’s LGBTQ+ community.
After years of teaching lessons on solidarity around the “Day of Silence,” an international day of action where students take a vow of silence to protest the effects of harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ+ students and raise awareness about homophobic and transphobic bullying and harassment, Mosdell’s “Day of Silence” lessons this year were canceled by the administration.
Ranelli’s decision to let Dr. Mosdell go by denying her tenure came on May 9, after about 35 students, parents, and community members attended to voice their support for Mosdell at a Board of Education meeting. A petition backing her has almost 1,800 signatures.
Recent Board of Education meetings have seen many community members speak up, saying Mosdell cares deeply about her students and that students deserve to have advocates who will stand up for them.
Armaan Puar, a student at the school said, “Our students value every conversation with her because of how comfortable we feel around her. She provides a safe space to discuss anything bothering us. She makes the Schor school community a happier and more joyful place.”
This controversy comes at the same time as states like Florida, Ohio, Louisiana and many more have passed laws that outlaw teaching about LGBTQ+ issues and history, as well outlawing lessons about structural racism, slavery, patriarchy, and sexism.
Legislators there claim that learning about these subjects makes children and parents uncomfortable.
Here in New Jersey, schools are now mandated to teach age-appropriate lessons about diversity and inclusion, but creating state mandates to teach these curriculums does not replace creating spaces where students feel comfortable and welcomed to be themselves.
Even after denying her tenure, the administration continued to interfere with Mosdell’s work. On May 20, Dr. Mosdell was told she could not administer the school climate survey created by GLSEN, the organization that has spearheaded the Day of Silence since 1996.
The climate survey asks about the administration’s support for LGBTQ+ youth and asks students to what extent they hear homophobic slurs at school.
New Jersey state law requires the use of school climate data to inform anti-bullying interventions, but the administration cut the survey down from 36 questions to just 10, rendering it virutally useless in terms of comparing data. In prior years, Mosdell’s climate surveys have shown a very high level of homophobic bullying, as well as little or no LGBTQ+ representation in their curriculums.
Mosdell has just one opportunity to present her case and ask the Board of Education to reverse the decision, by requesting a “Donaldson hearing,” an informal appearance
before the board. The hearing, named for an unrelated school law decision, is scheduled for July 14 at 5:30pm in Piscataway High School, and is open to the public.
The Board of Education has the authority to reverse Superintendent Ranelli’s decision to deny Dr. Mosdell’s tenure.
“Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, and the administration took action by dismissing LGBTQ+ lessons and silencing a GSA advisor. Students watched their mentor and ally go to bat for them and get fired. This is a terrible, and frankly dangerous, message to send to our students,” Mosdell wrote in a letter published by TapInto Piscataway.
At the June 9 Board of Education meeting, more than 100 students, parents, and community members came out to support Dr. Mosdell.
Jada King addressed the Board to say, “Instead of saying you can’t answer questions about the topic, give us answers about why this person who has been there for the students, who we love so much, is being fired.”
Another student shared that Mosdell “was the only person I felt actually comfortable to talk with. And no one will feel the same, will get the help that I received.”
“It’s heartbreaking and shattering,” the student said.
Ranelli declined to directly answer questions at the meetings, releasing a statement saying: “In conversations among community members about why any staff member has been non-renewed, please be aware there is confidential, internal information that is not shared with the community, and shouldn’t be shared as it is personal to the employee.”
Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a community organizer who has been coordinating support for Dr. Mosdell.