PUNXSUTAWNEY — Members of the Punxsutawney Area School Board at their meeting on Thursday discussed a letter from the Punxsutawney Republican Club inquiring on the activities of students involved in the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club (GSA) at the high school.
The letter, the second of its kind sent to the school board mentioned the alleged “steering of children towards the LGBTQ agenda” and students allegedly “behaving like and pretending to be other species.”
The letter invites members of the administration and the school board to an open meeting to discuss these issues.
School board member Robert Cardamone brought up the letter in the new business section and said there was some miscommunication with the first letter sent out, in that they never received it due to a technical issue.
Board member Lisa Mennetti said the concerns in the letter are worth talking about, mentioning that she thought the board was going to have a discussion with the administration about the GSA’s Safe Space Sticker program.
The program gives teachers who want to participate a sticker that says their classroom is a safe space. According to the official brochure: “By displaying a Safe Space sticker, you are telling students that you will listen to them, affirm their chosen or shared name, pronouns, or other identities, and can refer them to someone in the school who they can talk to more.”
Cardamone said that he would like to have more interaction with the teachers as a board.
“We talk about the school as being a team effort, and I feel like the largest part of the team is the teaching staff. I’ll use my military experience as an example. Even when I was a senior officer in the army working for a two star general, I was encouraged and encouraged others to go and visit units at the company level, to get a sense of the culture at the unit level and see how they thought things were going and to get a direct communication with them ... I also learned from my military experience that sometimes what we were getting filtered through the chain wasn’t what we were hearing at the top. I don’t feel like I am getting enough feedback from the teaching staff,” Cardamone said.
Cardamone said the board had addressed several of the issues delineated in the letter.
Board member Janey London said that in public education, you will have students from a plethora of different backgrounds. She invited the board to meet with the GSA club.
“How many of you have been in there and sat in there with these students and teachers? ... I don’t know many people that go and spend a lot of time with these kids and these organizations to see what they truly need. I think you maybe would have a different viewpoint than what people are telling you when you are here,” London said.
High school principal Manny Barbazzeni said GSA is mostly informational, and it is a safe space for any students, though it is centralized around the LGBTQ community, to go to a teacher to talk or if they need help with anything. He said the teachers have volunteered to talk to the students themselves or point them toward people who can help them. He said the school district is not indoctrinating kids and dispelled the rumor that there are “litter boxes” for students identifying as other species.
Assistant principal Lauren McLaughlin said the group has students who face a lot of serious issues, such as abuse and suicide.
“Nobody has raised any red flags about us dealing with the students who are suicidal or face abuse. These are marginalized students who are facing these serious issues. We simply say: ‘We have a social worker. We have guidance counselors. We can put you in touch with Community Action,” she said.
McLaughlin also said if a teacher is uncomfortable with the program because of personal values, that is their own decision; however, the district cannot ignore marginalized students who need to feel accepted and welcomed in the school environment.
Board member Matt Kengersky asked why there is a marginalized community that doesn’t feel safe at the school. McLaughlin said she doesn’t think that issue is something that the administration can necessarily fix, but the district can make a space where those students feel welcome.
“I am of the thinking that I don’t want to divide our classrooms or our hallways in any way shape or form. If we are not going to allow crosses to go on some classrooms, or (Black Lives Matter) stickers, or Blue Line stickers, or
whatever the next sticker is, that is just going to split the school up more and more. I don’t want to do that,” Kengersky said. “...I would like to be supportive of this club and of diversity, but I want a neutral education environment for everyone. I think that separating these kids is not doing that.”
Cardamone expressed his desire to address the public’s concerns in a civil discussion.
McLaughlin suggested talking to the students involved in the GSA club about the issue, as they were the ones that spearheaded the efforts.
“This is a student organization that felt the need to address this. This is not a staff addressing of this issue. This is not the administration saying we need this. This is student-led. Maybe that’s where we need to have that conversation is to talk to the students,” McLaughlin said.
Cardamone asked whether a club, such as the Bible Club, that wanted to have a sticker on its door letting the student know that they can come and talk about Christianity, would be allowed. Barbazzenni said the Bible Club has a poster on its door.
Board member Katie Laska said she feels that the advisors of these types of clubs should refer students to counselors for more discussion, rather than teachers taking time from teaching to discuss these issues.
“That should be where they take the next step. I don’t feel our teachers should take the time from teaching the kids English and math, the education part of it, and making it a therapy session room. There are guidance counselors for that reason and therapists for that reason. If we need more therapists on staff, we should hire them if there is a big need,” Laska said.
Cardamone asked if kids coming to a safe space room happens during class time. Barbazzenni and McLaughlin said it doesn’t.
London said a teacher’s job is not just to teach students, but to talk to them and engage with them.
“Kids bring in more baggage. Teachers sit and talk to kids constantly; it’s constant. That’s part of what teaching is,” London said.
Mennetti said she thinks the district should not be affirming students’ chosen pronouns. Laska said she agreed with Mennetti and that teaching students that they can be something other than male or female is taking their innocence away.
Board president Cindy Depp-Hutchinson said that students in the LGBTQ community need to be able to access education without judgment.
“These students, whe-ther they are gay, lesbian or transgender, these students in particular in this school need to know that there is some place that they can go that is safe and that is not judgmental. These kids are going to go to a teacher first before they go to a guidance counselor. That’s why this is so important. This isn’t just our school, this is a national thing. These kids definitely need a safe place they know that they can go where they won’t be judged. I am personally glad that we have it,” Depp-Hutchinson said.
The Spirit was informed Friday that a board member has requested that the Safe Space program appear on the agenda for Tuesday’s voting meeting.
The Punxsutawney Area School Board will hold a voting meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.