N.J. School Faces Backlash Over Yearbook Controversy Involving Jewish Group, Which Mayor Called 'Anti-Semitic'

This year's East Brunswick High School yearbook omitted the names and photo of the Jewish Student Union, including a photo of a group of Muslim students instead

<p>NO CREDIT</p> The names of Jewish Student Union members were not included in the yearbook and a wrong photo was used.


The names of Jewish Student Union members were not included in the yearbook and a wrong photo was used.

A New Jersey high school came under fire over a yearbook controversy involving a group of Jewish students. The school says an initial investigation showed that it was a mistake, but some students say what happened is just the latest in a series of incidents.

Every year, New Jersey's East Brunswick High School —which PEOPLE’s Rebecca Aizin attended, though years before the controversy — puts out a yearbook that features the names and photos of the members of each student club. However, this year's yearbook omitted the names and photo of the Jewish Student Union, and instead included a photo of a group of Muslim students.

Though the school immediately stopped the distribution of yearbooks after the issue was flagged and requested students return the books, Victor Valeski, East Brunswick Public School System's superintendent, tells PEOPLE that news had already begun to spread online, leading to concern and criticism from the community.

Mayor Brad Cohen called the incident a "blatant Anti-Semitic act" in a statement released on June 4, and called on the school's administration to determine how this occurred and "what person or persons are responsible."

"Hate has no place in East Brunswick and Anti-Semitism will not be tolerated," he wrote.

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Valeski sent out a message on June 4 apologizing for the "hurt, pain and anguish" the Jewish community was feeling and asked for time to properly investigate the situation.

"I urge the East Brunswick community, the one I have a decade long relationship with, to give me the opportunity to determine the cause and I simply ask individuals and organizations to slow their rush to judgment," he wrote in the message, which was obtained by PEOPLE.

Apart from the yearbook incident, members of the Jewish Student Union tell PEOPLE the most recent situation was just the latest in a line of alleged antisemitic altercations, which according to Abigail, a junior, "have not been dealt with." The students say that though they have raised their concerns to the administration, they don't feel that any actions have been taken to make them feel safe.

"It's a very hostile environment where we're scared to be ourselves," says Stephanie, a junior. "The school does not take us seriously when we talk about what we've experienced. I want them to care."

"I'm supposed to be a kid, I'm supposed to be having a high school experience and I feel like I've grown up to be such an adult," adds another junior, who asked to remain anonymous.

<p>DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty</p> The campus of East Brunswick High School in East Brunswick, New Jersey.


The campus of East Brunswick High School in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Valeski tells PEOPLE that an initial investigation has been completed and determined that the incident was a mistake. He says that the investigation found digital exchanges where the Yearbook Club, which is run by students with a faculty advisor, reached out to the Jewish Student Union to ask about names of members, but never got a reply.

As the organization is a non-paid club, which is the case for many clubs in the school, there is no official roster of its members, the superintendent says.

Valeski adds that the yearbook club could not find a photo taken of the group, though four members who spoke to PEOPLE say they recall one being taken. Valeski notes that while the responsibility is on Yearbook Club students to file and name the photos they take, only an adult places the photos in the yearbook.

He explains that after a page is made, it is edited and reviewed, and the school is looking further into who performed those tasks for the page in question.

Related: Teen Cancer Survivor Speaks Out After Her Chemotherapy Port Scar Was Edited Out of Yearbook Photo

Though the initial investigation is complete, Valeski shares that he has recommended that the school hire an independent lawyer who specializes in school law to investigate the situation.

"At this point, myself and other people in the district who I had involved in the investigation do not believe this was an intentional act or a subvert act where somebody went in and pulled a picture and replaced it right before publication," he says. "It appears simply that a picture was pulled from a digital file, it was dropped onto the page, it was not double checked and it was sent for publication."

Related: Dozens of University of Florida Students Injured as Stampede Breaks out at Israel Vigil

Valeski says the administration "thoroughly investigates" any act of hate that is reported and that he plans to instate a policy that allows students' voices to be heard more.

"Our job is to protect students and create an environment where they can learn and thrive," he says. "So if that didn't happen, then we're responsible for that."

Members of Jewish Student Union tell PEOPLE they're hopeful the error will be corrected — which Valeski says they're actively working on as a new photo of the club was taken June 6 — and that antisemitism will be taken more seriously at the school going forward.

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