Gottlieb offers apology for graduation comments

| 29 Jun 2012 | 09:34

WEST MILFORD — West Milford Board of Education Vice President Wayne Gottlieb offered an apology at Tuesday's board of education meeting, as a former board member and a current board member called for him to resign his position.

"To those who were upset, offended, or otherwise put-off by my remarks, I offer my sincere apologies," said Gottlieb in a prepared statement at the school board meeting. "Moreover, I will be more sensitive in the future regarding my public comments."

Gottlieb raised eyebrows with his comments at the high school graduation June 19 when he joked about an imaginary sniper and checked for explosives on the podium before he gave his speech. He was standing in for board President Dave Richards and said he didn't want anyone to mistake him for the school board president.

The story went viral, with news organizations across the country running versions of the story.

And while many were surprised and offended by the comments, most of Gottlieb's colleagues on the board chalked it up to a mistake.

Richards, who is aligned with Gottlieb on the board and who was the subject of his comments, said he accepted Gottlieb's apology and understands that people make mistakes.

“I accepted his apology” Richards said. “It was addressed at me, my name was mentioned, he said what he said. It was a mistake and we all can understand making mistakes.”

“It was an individual comment, and I’m accepting his apology," Richards continued. "I just want to move forward, and that’s all I can say about that matter.”

Richards was away on business and couldn't make the graduation. He was called soon after by his wife, Donna Richards, who was present at the graduation and who said she was very offended by Gottlieb's remarks concerning her husband.

"I was truly offended by the speech Mr. Gottlieb gave at the high school graduation on June 19. It caught me totally off guard and something I would never have expected from someone like him," said Donna Richards in a letter to the editor (see page 13 for the full letter). "I failed to see one ounce of humor in the comments that were made. The total lack of judgment and understanding as to the seriousness of those comments troubles me. It was disrespectful to our graduates and the staff who worked extremely hard to make this a beautiful and dignified occasion."

Debbie Browne, the mom of one of the graduates, told the board she was more offended by the media attention given to Gottlieb's remarks instead of focusing on the accomplishments of the graduates and the celebration itself.

“Gottlieb meant no harm,” said Browne. "A mistake was made. Move on."

Former Trustee Barbara Carter disagreed. She called for Gottlieb to resign and said if he didn't, the board was creating a double standard, letting him get away with calling the comments a joke.

Trustee Jim Foody echoed Carter's sentiments.

“It was a serious matter,” said Foody. “We can never look another child in the face or pass judgment on any child without giving the same opportunity that you guys are giving to Mr. Gottlieb tonight, to let them apologize and walk away Scott-free.”

Gottlieb read his statement addressed to those present at the graduation ceremony (see box). He apologized for his attempt at humor and congratulated the graduates. He promised to be more sensitive when making public comments.

Gottlieb had his defenders. Trustee Matt Conlon said Foody should resign, adding that Foody has had a personal vendetta against Gottlieb. Conlon said Gottlieb's comments were not harmful or threatening and characterized them as "a mistake." He said there is no legal recourse and, even if there was, it would send the wrong message to kids.

"You screw up once and you're done," he said. "That's not the message we're trying to send to these kids.

Conlon called the rest of Gottlieb's speech uplifting, motivating and inspiring.

But Foody said there is a double standard. He said board members would have come after him to resign if he had made the statements that Gottlieb did.

Gottlieb said there does appear to be different standards of punishment since his mistake has been broadcast for all to see.

“If you’re so narrow-minded that you think that 385,000 hits (on the Internet) against a human being who actually has a life outside of this school board, business interests outside of this community, is not some kind of punishment, I suggest you rethink that.”