OLEAN – The Olean school board heard again from a number of community members on Tuesday evening voicing concerns about a principal and the underlying equality and safety issues in the school district.
Eight people, including parents, taxpayers and community leaders, spoke to the board about middle school principal Joel Whitcher preaching at the Fresh Fire Worship Center in a series of videos released on Facebook in mid-September.
Whitcher made comments on religious beliefs, sexual orientation, mental health, poverty, politics and COVID-19, among other topics, which many outraged members of the community characterized as hate speech, which led to protests from students and residents.
Dozens of these community members attended the September 21 board meeting, as did many who stood up for Whitcher and what they said was his First Amendment right. That council meeting included several outbursts during the public comment period, which many at Tuesday’s meeting said poorly reflected the council and its leadership in the district.
“As a board that oversees the education, diversity and safety of these students, what are you going to do? What are you guys going to stand up for? How are you going to handle this situation? Daniel Gayton asked from the board.
Gayton said Whitcher shouldn’t be part of the school system, “and the fact that we’re sitting here a month later talking about this again is a slap in the face of this community because this community doesn’t believe in these. viewpoints.”
After the public comment period for Tuesday’s meeting, the school board entered an executive session to discuss a staffing issue and expected to return to take action. The board ultimately voted to maintain one particular person’s administrative leave, but did not name Whitcher in the action.
Sarah Burt, whose daughter attends the district, said adults in the school and in the community need to be the example against bullying and for everyone’s acceptance. She said religion had no place in public school, referring to comments Whitcher made about “school infiltration”.
“To have freedom, no religion can rule our country, our city or our states,” she said. “A public school is a safe place for all children of all ethnicity, orientation and religion. “
In addition to concerns over Whitcher, some speakers also noted that a group of people were allowed to attend the September 21 meeting without wearing face masks, even after they were asked to wear them. Residents said it flies in the face of a New York state mandate for schools, which speakers on Tuesday said was mismanaged by the board.
“According to the code of conduct, you are required to follow state rules and regulations. Please do your job, ”Jessica Malone told the board. “It is about doing what is in the best interests of the children, not the individual freedoms of anyone. Hopefully, your recent disregard for health regulations will not result in the death of any children in our district or county. “
Malone also addressed the issue regarding Whitcher and student safety. When Malone’s three minutes for speaking were up, the next person to speak said they could use some of their time, but the board told them no.
“I’m very concerned about the way you try to pick up the hook, keep quiet, tell us what we can say, email us after we sign up,” said Ty Malone, who took the lead. word after Jessica Malone.
Ty Malone said if the board cannot keep the students safe, he and the constituents in the district have the power to elect new board members who will take action.
Mickey George urged the district to immediately focus its attention on building safe spaces in schools. Although some teachers have taken steps to let students know their doors are open to them, George said more needs to be done.
“Please don’t stagnate on this issue, and please sever all ties to religious institutions at once and, finally, demand the immediate dismissal of Joel Whitcher,” George urged. .
Gary Harvey read an article on the district’s website regarding the district’s guidelines and handling of the issue, adding that he found it funny because the board had yet to act.
“If we’re really creating a safe place for our students, then we’ve missed the mark and we’ve missed it by far,” he said. “Now I challenge you to step up and do good and protect our children because you haven’t. “
Timothy Sherlock, representing the Cattaraugus County Coalition for Change, a community organization that wants to create an atmosphere that protects children and promotes their well-being and inclusion in the district, asked to meet with the director and the board to discuss best practices and an action plan to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We have described in detail the changes we see that would be the district’s best practice to promote this equality and inclusion,” he said. Sherlock distributed copies of the package the coalition had prepared to the board.
Leo Wolter Tejera, the last speaker from the audience, said the fact that the community approached the school board three years ago about a similar incident with another employee proves the problem is a systemic failure of the district maintained by inaction and ignorance of the needs of students and teachers.
“There have been multiple incidents of hate actions, many of which were perpetrated on school property,” Tejera said. “The school district has made no effort to stop this cancer and this latent attitude in this system.”
Following the public comment section, Board Chairman Andrew Caya thanked speakers for their comments. No other board member took the floor.