N.J. High School Yearbook Photo Controversy Was 'Unfortunate Error,' Investigation Finds

The East Brunswick High School yearbook omitted the names and photo of its Jewish Student Union and simultaneously mislabeled a group of Muslim students

East Brunswick High School
East Brunswick High School

A controversial error in a New Jersey high school yearbook has been found to be "a highly unfortunate error," according to an investigation by a Board of Education-retained attorney.

Earlier this month, New Jersey's East Brunswick High School came under fire after a photo — and the names — of its Jewish Student Union members were omitted from its annual yearbook, which instead featured a mislabeled photo of Muslim students.

On Tuesday, June 18, Yaacov Brisman of Brisman Law shared that he found the omission to be a mistake by an unidentified staff member who served as advisor for the school's yearbook club.

"It is undeniable that she did place it herself," the lawyer shared in the report. "I found [her] credible, and I have no basis to find that she acted out of any animus, racial, religious, or political, towards Jewish or Muslim students."

According to Brisman, the staff member "assumed" they used the correct photo and that the yearbook club advisor "was at best careless, but her actions can also be considered negligent."

As previously reported by PEOPLE, Superintendent Victor Valeski said an initial investigation had determined the incident was a mistake.

<p>DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty</p> East Brunswick High School


East Brunswick High School

The investigation report also detailed what lead to the error, including how the photo came up in the advisor's keyword search for "Jewish." This was a result of apparent overlapping photo tags, as the school's Muslim Student Association and Jewish Student Union have "historically shared a page" in the yearbook. The yearbook club also reportedly "did not receive a JSU roster for inclusion in the [yearbook's] groups section," as previously reported.

Brisman recommended that the district "revisit the entire Yearbook production process and implement more sophisticated review measures" — including advisor training, a principal review, adding another lead advisor role, reviewing document names, and requiring club advisors to "provide information" — such as club rosters — to the yearbook staff in a "timely" manner.

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

Following the release of the findings, the superintendent said that "while I’m grateful that the results of this investigation show that these actions were serious mistakes without malice, we must now focus on repairing the deep hurt and division that has been created in our school and community."

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, he went on to add that the district will "make sure that there is accountability for the mistakes that were made and take measures, including implementing a tolerance training program for the start of the next school year, to ensure something like this never happens again.”

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After news of the controversy first became public, members of the Jewish Student Union told PEOPLE that what happened was just the latest in a series of incidents, and that although they have raised concerns to the administration, they didn't feel the school took them seriously.

Muslim Student Association Vice President Ali Salama also spoke out, saying that although their club "had no involvement in this" they had "become the face of the whole incident because our faces weren't even blurred out before the photo was posted on social media," according to CNN.

Related: High School Student with Disability Felt 'Robbed' After Having to Sit in Audience for Graduation

Mayor Brad Cohen, who previously spoke out about the incident, released a statement on Thursday, noting that he was "relieved" that there was "no proof of any intentionality," which "would have been extremely disheartening for a community that prides itself on its diversity and acceptance."

In a statement from June 19, Board of Education President Laurie Lachs said they will "work with the Superintendent to make changes to the yearbook creation process and to bring more oversight in the yearbook review process so that receiving a yearbook will once again be a rite of passage all students will enjoy.”

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