FOXBURG - Concerns regarding bullying caused a whole other set of problems for the Allegheny-Clarion Valley School District.
A group of citizens and parents voiced their concerns at the A-C Valley school board's regular April 19 monthly meeting regarding an anti-bullying program which some of the parents and community members found troubling.
In early April, A-C Valley High School Principal Dr. William Jordan invited representatives from PASSAGES, Inc. to hold a presentation regarding bullying of those with alternative lifestyles for the eighth-grade class.
The issues voiced at the meeting weren't about the anti-bullying message but in how the message was presented.
Reverend Eric Mitchell, pastor at the Park Hill Church of God in West Freedom, spoke on behalf of the "Circle of Friends."
The Circle of Friends is a group made up of pastors around the community including Rev. Dan Myers, Rev. Chuck Cline, Rev. Amy Callander, Rev. Deryl Larson, Rev. Brenda Aughenbaugh and Lay Minister Greg Edinger.
Mitchell voiced his concerns regarding some of the imagery used during the presentation.
"It has come to our attention, that the program PASSAGES has shared some information which has made some parents concerned about what this program is teaching A-C Valley students," Mitchell said. "Let me say first and foremost, bullying has no place in our schools and society and we will support all programs that stand against bullying.
"However, we must use our right to free speech when a program has stepped over the line to what we deem appropriate for our school students to be part of without parental consent."
Mitchell continued, "When PASSAGES posts a picture of a family of two people who look like men and one of them appears to be pregnant and presents that as truth, the Circle of Friends believes this type of teaching has no place in our public schools."
PASSAGES Executive Director Marlene Austin responded to Mitchell and the parents' concerns.
"We were contacted by the school asking if we could provide programming to help with bullying concerns for themselves or their families who have identified as a member of the LGBTQ community," Austin said. "It was determined our program should be general so no one student was singled out and that is the type of programming that we made."
PASSAGES, Inc. serves Clarion, Jefferson and Clearfield Counties and is a non-profit organization which provides sexual violence individual/group counseling, legal/medical advocacy and sexual violence prevention/education programs.
A-C Valley Elementary School Counselor Lori Kersey spoke during the meeting and said she believes the programs PASSAGES provides are vitally important to A-C Valley students' health and their well-being.
Board member Kelly Terwilliger wanted to make it clear the problem wasn't with PASSAGES itself.
"I think we are muddying the waters a little bit here and I don't think the issue was with PASSAGES," Terwilliger said. "I know PASSAGES has provided great programs in the past and bullying is an issue that needs to be taken care of. I think the issue in this case is, somebody dropped the ball and those parents should have been notified as to whether they wanted their students to be exposed to some of the content that was in the presentation.
"I feel that presentation could have happened easily without getting into sexual identity and orientation. It should have been a general presentation about bullying. I think as a district we did a disservice to our parents by not allowing them to decide their own decision of what they want their student to hear and not to hear in the school building."
Board member Carrie Armagost concurred with Terwilliger's feelings on the matter.
"I have to sign a permission slip so my child can watch a PG-13 movie at the school but yet you expose my child to topics I have not had an opportunity to speak to my child about because of their age or their beliefs, that's where the problem lies," Armagost said. "I was not given the option to give permission."
Armagost also stated she had no problem with the PASSAGES group and that she heard nothing derogatory regarding PASSAGES.
Austin, however, related that the social media backlash in response to the presentation was damaging to the PASSAGES agency.
"It spread like wildfire on social media and as it spread it did get pretty derogatory about our agency and that is pretty tough to swallow for all of the good that we do," Austin said. "I don't know how our name will get cleared. For all of the good that we do for children who are abused, we really took a hit on social media."
Austin said she agreed with Terwilliger and Armagost that parents should have been notified about the presentation that was coming.
Jordan stated he sent a few opt-out forms home but he had so many opt-outs he would have had a class with zero participants.
Jordan relayed why he felt the program was necessary at the high school.
"There are people in this district who are not coming out' because of a fear of bullying," Jordan said. "Whether you find (the anti-bullying program) has value or not, it needs to be done and it needs to be discussed and it is a tough subject to talk about. I don't regret one bit bringing the program in."
Jordan said he and the guidance counselors discussed what could be done and they approached PASSAGES about holding the anti-bullying program.
The PASSAGES representatives (Austin and Prevention Educator Joy Horner) and Servey believe the third grade class could have watched the presentation with no issue. They also felt the presentation was taken well out of context when related to the parents and the community.
A-C Valley School Board President Jennifer Feicht stated she spoke with Austin about the program and she did not believe the program was promoting a lifestyle.
"(The program) was saying these lifestyles are present in our community and it is not OK to bully them because they are who they are," Feicht said. "We want to be clear we are accepting of all students who come into our district and we are not going allow students to be bullied just because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity."
Feicht said the board and the administration would have further conversations regarding the issue.