Toms River BOE member faces torrent of opposition at meeting
Before listening to 60-plus minutes of public comment that was mostly devoted to attacking his character and calling for his resignation from the Toms River Regional Board of Education, Dan Leonard used Facebook to belittle a township resident who was protesting outside the BOE meeting earlier in the evening.
"This is unacceptable behavior and I feel threatened, and I'm going to file a police report if they'll let me," Chris Simoes, the target of the post, told Townsquare Media.
The post (pictured below) on the Team Leonard page, which is run by Leonard himself, asks if "these nuts see the error of 'overplaying your hand' ... especially based on a lie." The post also refers to Simoes, a female, as a "dude," as well as a "Wacko."
Simoes was one of dozens of individuals — many from other towns — who gathered outside Toms River High School North before Wednesday night's meeting to express their outrage over Leonard's controversial social media posts that have been described as hate speech and anti-Muslim.
"I work in school districts and I know the influence that adults have over children," said Melissa Tomlinson, a resident of Atlantic County. "So when you have a school board member that is supposed to be looking out for the interests of children, that makes comments such as school board member Dan Leonard has, it's concerning."
Leonard, who was elected in 2016 and represents Beachwood on the nine-member panel, first came under pressure to step down after posting a link on his Facebook page to an article that said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., called "for hunger strikes to end ICE." Leoard added the caption, "My life would be complete if she/they die ..."
The post he shared referred to her controversial quote from a speech regarding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At a March banquet for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Omar said “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” The quote has frequently been criticized as dismissive of the attacks.
CAIR is America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.
In a video posted Monday on his Facebook page, Leonard said he "never called for Congresswoman Tlaib's death," and the things he said about Congresswoman Omar "are based on facts."
Lilah Saber, a 2014 graduate of Toms River High School East, used Leonard's comments to expose what she calls a "systemic problem" of "Islamophobia, racism and white supremacy" in the township's school district. Saber, an Egyptian, said as a student she was harassed in front of teachers and discriminated against for her nationality, and "nothing was done."
Saber asked the board how it intends to ensure students today feel safer than she ever felt.
"The board and administration have assured both the student body as well as the employees of this district that they are committed to supporting diversity, supporting stability, supporting honesty. Anything different is rejected by the board," said school board attorney Stephan Leone, who responded most frequently during the public comment period.
The school board's president has called on Leonard to resign. The district superintendent and Leone himself have condemned Leonard's online posts as well.
"Please don't conclude that the board hasn't taken a position on this," Leone told a member of the public.
The board cannot act to remove a sitting board member. Leone told the crowd that ethics complaints filed by board members in the past have taken over a year to be resolved. Leonard's seat will be filled by someone else come January 2020.
Of the 20 or so members of the public who took the podium, two spoke in support of Leonard, including Richard Denicola, who served overseas with Leonard in the Army.
"I think people are confused between what's freedom of speech and what's hate speech," Denicola told Townsquare Media. "It's two different things. You have the right to have an opinion."
Leonard did not address the crowd or media during or after the two-hour meeting — public comment was not expected — but made comments on Facebook about an hour after the meeting's end, calling his opposers "so cute with their 'resisting' and all." In his comments, Leonard referred to one speaker as a "burly bastard" with a tight shirt.
Wednesday morning, while speaking with New Jersey 101.5 morning host Bill Spadea, Leonard reiterated his plans to stay with the BOE until his term expires at the end of 2019.
"I'm not going to resign, Bill," Leonard said. "I'm not going to compromise my integrity. I'm not going to run for reelection because I'm not going to compromise the district's integrity. I'm not going to compromise the integrity of my family, who's been severely impacted by this."
Leonard told Spadea he's received some death threats that law enforcement has deemed as actionable.
Late Wednesday night on Facebook, Leonard said he'd resign immediately if Gov. Phil Murphy agreed to fully fund Toms River Regional Schools for the next three years. Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver have also called for Leonard's resignation.
-With past reporting by Dan Alexander and Erin Vogt
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