Thirteen-year-old Alex Woinski of Paramus, who celebrated his bar mitzvah in September, spent a long time planning his Halloween costume, said his father Alan Woinski.
“He and his friends discussed it for a while,” he said. “His friend Max was going to be Moses, Joey was going to be a rabbi, and Justin was going to be a priest.”
As it happened, Alex’s friends were not able to put together the appropriate costumes. However, Alex – who was to dress as Jesus – was able to find what he wanted.
“But the long beard that came with the costume looked ridiculous,” said his father. “I found him another one, but it had to be glued on in pieces,” he said. “It took over an hour to get the beard on.”
As it happens, Alex’s costume attracted more attention than he bargained for. Just one hour after he arrived at the West Brook Middle School in Paramus, his mother received a call from the school that Alex had to be picked up and taken home.
“They told him his costume was offensive,” said his father. “He offered to remove the crown of thorns but said he couldn’t take off the beard” because it was too difficult.
The school did not yield, and Alex was sent home.
“We spent over an hour and a half peeling it off,” said his father. “We had to put on cream because [Alex’s face] was really irritated.”
“I was pretty surprised by what happened,” said Alex. “[The school] said it was offensive and I didn’t think it was. My friends thought it was a great costume and they were mad at the school for making me take it off.”
Alex returned to school later in the day, without a costume. Now, he says, things are “pretty much” back to normal.
Alan Woinski said that while Alex is not the kind of boy to “fly off the handle, my older son, Justin, was very upset” and e-mailed a local newspaper to report the incident. “He said you don’t single a kid out. It’s not as if he used profanity.”
|Alex Woinski, wearing the costume for which he was sent home from school, stands in front of his family’s Paramus home. ALAN WOinski|
Shortly after the e-mail was sent, he said, the family began to receive phone calls from media outlets, “from the Town News to CBS News to News 12.”
“I almost feel sorry for the [Paramus school] superintendent,” said Woinski, pointing out that the school began to receive media calls as well. But, he said, he was troubled by the fact that the school had told the media that Alex’s costume was “disruptive.”
“They told Alex one thing, and the press another,” he said. “They told Alex it was offensive.” If it were simply disruptive, he said, then other students, especially those in flamboyant costumes, should have been sent home as well.
Superintendent James Montesano told The Jewish Standard that while he had not been the one to speak directly with Alex, he was told by the school principal, Joan Kelly Broe, who was not available for comment, that she had been approached by several individuals who said they were offended by the costume. Nevertheless, he said, that was not the reason Alex was asked to leave.
“Certainly the students have the right to express their views,” he said, “and we don’t promote religion in the schools. Our call was to preserve the integrity of the instructional day.”
“We try to strike a balance between providing students with an opportunity to celebrate American traditions” and maximizing instructional time, he said. “It was not an attempt to take a position for or against a particular faith.”
The superintendent said that Alex was not the only student asked to remove his costume “to preserve some sense of order.”
“He was able to display his costume,” Montesano added, noting that he found out only later that Alex’s beard could not be easily removed.