Several hundred people packed the Abington Senior High School auditorium Tuesday night as the Board of Education tried to tamp down backlash over remarks by one of its members that students of color were “much more likely to be shot by” school police.
As they criticized Tamar Klaiman’s comments — and as Klaiman again apologized — board members navigated their part in the national debate over race and policing, touched off in Abington during an otherwise routine meeting last month as the board reviewed a proposed amendment to a policy on school police.
“We should not be trying to solve the problems of the world around us,” board member and former board president Raymond McGarry said to applause. “If that’s what you want to do, run for a different office or become a political activist.”
He and several other board members dismissed Klaiman’s statements as incorrect, inflammatory, and offensive to Abington police, who have two school resource officers working in district schools. The crowd — many of whom held signs reading “Support Abington Police” — gave Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy a standing ovation, and cheered loudly in support of police.
Board President Shameeka Browne had to silence the crowd at the beginning of the meeting, as Klaiman said she had faced “vile personal attacks” in the wake of her comments. “Shut up!” one man yelled.
Other people expressed support for Klaiman during the meeting.
Klaiman was part of a slate of new board members elected in November and installed last month. The group pledged new transparency for a suburban district rocked by its handling of a $25 million donation from billionaire Stephen Schwarzman — an episode that exposed frustrations in the community and contributed to changes in leadership in the 7,000-student district.
As board members discussed an updated policy on school resource officers Jan. 21, Klaiman expressed concern that the officers were armed.
“There’s a lot of evidence that anyone carrying a firearm in a district building puts kids at risk, particularly students of color,” said Klaiman, a parent and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She said that “black and brown students are more likely to be shot by police officers, especially school resource officers, than other students.”
Later in the discussion about the district’s policy, Klaiman said, “Police officers also shoot people pretty regularly.”
The comments erupted on social media, drawing condemnation from a national police group and prompting an online petition to demand her resignation that had more than 1,600 signers as of Tuesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Klaiman said she was “deeply sorry” for her comments and supported the Abington police and its school resource officers, who “work very hard to gain the trust” of students.
But “Abington is not immune to circumstances outside our community,” Klaiman said, including racial bias that “may impact feelings of safety for students of color” when encountering police. Murmurs arose in the crowd.
That feeling carried over into comments from people who lined up at microphones to speak Tuesday and continued to ask Klaiman to resign. A woman who said she was the daughter of a retired Philadelphia police detective called Klaiman’s comments “hateful."
Mike Murphy of the Upper Moreland Police Department said he was “very much insulted that [Klaiman] would make statements related to police officers routinely and unjustifiably shooting students, or people of color, or anybody.”
Molloy — who said he accepted Klaiman’s apology — addressed the crowd along with Deputy Police Chief Kelley Warner, who gave a presentation on the role of school resource officers in the district.
“These past two weeks have been a terrible distraction” and “not the way to begin a difficult conversation” about guns in schools and disparate discipline for students, Molloy said.
A number of community members said they wanted to have that conversation.
Larry Jones, a former Abington commissioner who runs a charter school in Philadelphia, said he was “really disappointed” that “we have tried to make a complex and nuanced situation simple.”
While Jones said he supports Abington police, "I’m a black man, and I have been criminalized in my time on this Earth. ... I fear for my son, and that is real.”
Another man, who is white, said Klaiman’s comments may have been “distasteful” to some, but “they have opened up a discussion they needed to hear," and urged her to stay on the board.
McGarry said the district had previously hired an equity officer who began this week and will be examining issues of bias and diversity.
One girl said, “I see African Americans getting shot” on social media. “That makes me scared of the police.”