The Conservative Culture of Caldwell: Has Caldwell Failed the Left?

Ben Mulick

It shouldn’t be an undisclosed truth that there are strong conservative overtones within our community, these need to be analyzed thoroughly. I have examined a certain tolerance for the ideas of nationalism and conservatism in our community that JCHS has quietly allowed for many years. There is a climate that precipitates into the school from the community, a climate that emboldens the right. I have realized that this topic has to be at the forefront of the community’s conscious and it should be looked at in depth. The actions of not just the student body, but of the administration, has projected a certain ambiguity concerning the political climate of the community of Caldwell. The administration might try to rectify certain situations, but the student body still feels this empowerment and the climate is maintained. Nonetheless, a culture of conservatism has prevailed. This culture of conservatism at Caldwell has, at times, suppressed those on the left in, those who strive for independent political education and for pursuits of social justice.

There is no monolithic force that one can single out to display this subtle bias, rather it is a broad culmination of attitudes, actions, and popular sentiment. I began to discover these my sophomore year. A student two years older than me flew a Confederate flag on the back of his pickup truck to school on the first day. Though this could be construed as a hate crime at a majority of schools in New Jersey, I noticed the perpetrator had a firm support group within the school.  I realized the administration’s reaction was delayed, for I continued to see the flag. However, after some time, the student was dealt with and the flag went down. The mere fact that this student felt comfortable bringing this flag to school and that it went unnoticed at first speaks volume; it was a rude awakening to the type of school I went to.

Three years after President Obama won a second term,  I saw the birth of the “Patriot Club,” which immediately let their views be known by hanging flyers with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush on them. It appeared to me at this point that the Confederate flag, anti-immigration, and Blue Lives Matter offered students a safety network. A network which appeared to foster and encourage a conservative mindset agenda among students, the idea is that you need to uphold certain beliefs in order to be a “patriot.” The administration has apparently found no fault with this, considering their community service projects for police and firefighters. To the administration, there is no correlation between allowing such a club and the subsequent belittlement and mockery of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which ranges from verbal harassment to the tearing down of GSA flyers. There is no surprise when Caldwell students participate in a “Build that wall!” chant on the inauguration day of President Trump; the conservative culture sets the norms for the environment in which kids go to school in. When Caldwell students unfurl a Blue Lives Matter flag, the flag of a racist reactionary movement that arose as a response to Black Lives Matter, at a football game against Jersey City, which has a predominantly African-American team, it displays Calwell’s conservative culture to other schools. The culture is then strengthened. Regarding the harassment of JCHS Gay-Straight Alliance students, when the administration looked into some of the more recent harassment cases, they couldn’t find a specific individual to punish, so no administrative punishment was dealt. This in no way diminishes what has happened and what will continue to happen to the members of the GSA.

I was appalled on Halloween of my sophomore year when a student dressed up in a mock Caitlyn Jenner costume, which violated dress code and made a majority of students uncomfortable. Instead of condemning this student’s choice, the student who was an ardent Patriot Club member, was awarded by the administration and placed in the best costume contest. In my junior year, I was disturbed by the fact that the administration still allowed for the topic of the legality of same-sex marriage to be debated in the junior year health class debate series. A debate topic which ultimately invalidated the existence of LGBT+ students in the past and whose removal had to be advocated by the students.

I have found in many cases, an overt projection of conservatism and nationalism while growing up in Caldwell. This has made many kids on the left marginalized and out of place, due to the perception. The administration might allow the pride flag to be displayed preemptively in the 400 wing, but do they really promote an environment of tolerance? Emma Ogando, a senior at JCHS, details the environment that has been created, “I feel that JCHS is a place where students feel safe to make sexist, racist, and homophobic comments. It was explained to me that the administration is aware that such behavior goes on, but I wish they took it a step further and worked harder to promote a safer, more tolerant atmosphere for the students. I personally feel that the school falls short of doing this. Additionally, the administration has been known to target female students regarding the dress code, but male students are [seen wearing] shirts promoting drugs, sex, and violence. As a student, I feel let down by the administration.” Alumnus Taryn Urban of the class of 2014 also remarks on her own personal experience: “I found that my education at JCHS was severely lacking meaningful conversations on social justice issues and did not provide me with a solid foundation for learning about these topics in college. Looking back at my high school self, I realize that I accidentally said and did some racist things, and was not challenged on it by my peers or teachers. JCHS fails at teaching students how to exhibit basic respect and understanding towards marginalized communities.” A dominant conservative culture within the community fails their students in the long run and stifles any supposive tolerance the community attempts to promote.

I have to stress that although these are just my experiences, there are many more like mine that all indicate towards this quiet yet burdening atmosphere. The administration may interview GSA students about harassment or prohibit political banners at sports events, a prohibition circumvented by members of the community who created shirts with both the Blue Lives Matter flag and Chiefs heads on them, but the empowerment is still there. The reality is that the right is organized and dominating in Caldwell and this has consequences for all members of the community. There has to be a change, a removal of political bias within our school community. I believe that such change within our community is possible, but can only be brought about by direct action of students. If there is to be any “Place of Possibilities” then it is true that there exists still a great burden of change for students at Caldwell.