OLEAN — The Olean Board of Education once again heard from a number of community members Tuesday evening with concerns about a principal and the overlying issues of equality and safety in the school district.
Eight people, including parents, taxpayers and leaders in the community, addressed the board regarding Joel Whitcher, Intermediate Middle School principal, preaching at Fresh Fire Worship Center in a series of videos posted on Facebook in mid-September.
Whitcher made comments on religious beliefs, sexual orientation, mental health, poverty, politics and COVID-19, among other subjects, that many outraged community members called hate speech, leading to protests made by students and residents.
Dozens of those community members attended the Sept. 21 board meeting, as did many who defended Whitcher and what they said was his First Amendment right. That board meeting included several outbursts during the public comment period, which several at Tuesday’s meeting said reflected poorly on the board and its leadership in the district.
“As a board that oversees the education and diversity and safety of these students, what are you guys going to do? What are you guys going to stand for? How are you guys going to deal with this situation?” asked Daniel Gayton of the board.
Gayton said Whitcher should not be part of the school system, “and the fact that we’re sitting here a month later still talking about this issue is a slap in this community’s face because this community does not believe in these views.”
Following the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, the school board entered into executive session to discuss a personnel matter and expected to return to make action. The board ultimately voted to continue the administrative leave of a particular person, but did not name Whitcher in the action.
Sarah Burt, whose daughter attends the district, said the adults in the school and community need to be the example against bullying and for acceptance of all people. She said religion has no place in the public school, referring to comments made by Whitcher about “infiltrating the school.”
“In order to have freedom, no religion can govern our country, city or states,” she said. “A public school is a safe place for all children of all ethnicity, orientation and religion.”
In addition to the concerns about Whitcher, some speakers also noted a group of people were allowed to attend the Sept. 21 meeting without wearing face masks, even after they were asked to wear them. The residents said this was against a New York state mandate for schools, something Tuesday’s speakers said was poorly handled by the board.
“According to the code of conduct, you are required to enforce state rules and regulations. Please, do your job,” Jessica Malone told the board. “This is about doing what is in the children’s best interest, not the individual freedoms of anyone. Hopefully, your recent disregard for health regulations will not lead to the death of any children in our district our our county.”
Malone also addressed the issue regarding Whitcher and the safety of the students. When Malone’s allotted three minutes to speak ran out, the next person to speak said she could use some of his time, but they were told no by the board.
“I’m very concerned on how you guys try to stall out, keep quiet, tell us what we can say, send us messages over email after the fact that we signed up,” said Ty Malone, who spoke after Jessica Malone.
Ty Malone said if the board can’t keep the students safe, he and the voters of the district have the power to elect new board members who will take action.
Mickey George urged the district to immediately focus attention on building safe spaces in the schools. Although some teachers have taken a step in letting students know their doors are open to them, George said more needs to be done.
“Please do not stagnate on this issue, and please cut all ties to religious institutions at once and, lastly, please seek immediate termination of Joel Whitcher,” George urged.
Gary Harvey read a post on the district website regarding the district’s guiding principles and addressing the matter at hand, adding he finds it comical because the board had yet to act.
“If we are truly creating a safe place for our students, then we’ve missed the mark and we missed it by far,” he said. “Now I challenge you to actually step up and do the right and protect our children because you have failed to do so.”
Timothy Sherlock, representing the Cattaraugus County Coalition for Change, a community organization that wants to create an atmosphere that protects children and promotes their wellbeing and inclusion in the district, requested to meet with the superintendent and board to discuss best practices and an action plan to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We have outlined in detail the changes we see that would be the best practice of the district to promote this equality and inclusion,” he said. Sherlock passed out copies of the packet the coalition prepared to the board.
Leo Wolter Tejera, the final speaker from the public, said the fact that the community addressed the school board three years ago over a similar incident with a different employee proves the issue is a systemic failure of the district maintained by inaction and ignorance of needs of students and teachers.
“There have been multiple incidents of hate-related actions, many of which were perpetuated on school property,” Tejera claimed. “The school district has taken no efforts to curb this cancer and attitude that is latent in this system.”
Following the public comment section, board president Andrew Caya thanked the speakers for their comments. No other board members spoke.