South Fayette Update – Supplying Our Own Light

Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.

Rush, “Subdivisions” (1982)

The excited trepidation that accompanied the possibility of a Presidential visit to Leetsdale was just as quickly swept away by Monday, when it was announced that Wednesday’s visit was relocated to a CCAC satellite campus in North Fayette Township. The White House was quoted by the Trib as stating the new location “could more easily accommodate a presidential visit”.

Now there’s a diplomatic understatement.

No use in crying over spilled visits from the leader of the free world. If any good comes of this, perhaps it will generate some serious movement about creating a second point of vehicle access in and out of Leetsdale Industrial Park – that entire side of the borough, for that matter.

What seems to be more impressive than even the President coming to town is the public response to the events in the South Fayette School District that I touched on in a post last weekend. Up to last Saturday, the story had existed on several conservative and issues-oriented media websites for almost a week, but had not been reported on by any Pittsburgh-area media.

At least two local talk show hosts had several messages with links to these stories posted on their social media pages – especially after the mass stabbing incident at Franklin Regional High School – and did not respond to them. It might also be fairly stated that this story might have continued to be conveniently ignored locally had Franklin Regional not occurred.

That all changed with Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Review. Reporter Adam Brandolph not only established the same information reported online for a week prior, but went a step further in Tuesday’s paper by delving into the viability of the legal actions initiated by school administration, and taken forward by South Fayette Police and District Justice Maureen McGraw-Desmet. This culminated with Thursday’s report that a Common Pleas Court judge had signed an order formally withdrawing the citation. 

The actions by authorities leading up to that withdrawal generated varied reactions from several experts on bullying and media law, including the Allegheny County District Attorney. None of these have cast a very favorable light on the actions taken.

The response from those authorities to this slightly belated groundswell of publicity has been to continue to refuse to talk about it. Aside from a tersely worded press release from the school district stating that information in the media is “inaccurate and/or incomplete”, these authorities will not elaborate further.

This does not lend itself to a feeling of confidence in those officials, both elected and appointed. Quoting the Trib on Friday:

And, incredibly, Mr. Stanfield was convicted before a district judge. If heads don’t roll, the injustice will be even greater.

 

S Fayette Board Meeting

Marie Sneel of South Fayette addresses the South Fayette Township School District Board during a meeting on Tuesday, April 15.   South Fayette High School Principal Scott Milburn can be seen in the background looking at Ms. Sneel.                                                                                                                                              Heidi Murrin – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

This continued at the School Board level, as several parents expressed concerns to the South Fayette Board at a Tuesday night meeting. The Trib account of the meeting quoted board President Len Fornella as saying “This is a school issue”.

Mr. Fornella – the public schools belong to the people.

The people of South Fayette elected you to represent them.

Therefore if “this is a school issue”, then for you it is the people’s issue. You owe it to them to at least attempt to address their concerns, lest the people choose someone else who will.

 

 Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you: build, therefore, your own world.

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The online comments from readers of the various local media outlets paint the same general picture of opinion about how the incident was handled. Many commenters allege that a rigid cultural hierarchy is in place at South Fayette, and that Christian Stanfield may be the tip of an iceberg that has been building over generations and decades of similar socio-economic “subdivisions” at South Fayette and other suburban high schools.

We must be honest with ourselves about these divisions, and that unpleasant side of human nature that causes one group of people to prey upon another for no other reason than they are different. The message must come from home and school that in a civilized society this is no longer acceptable.

An excellent Post-Gazette story from Monday seemed to emphasize the need for schools to address the potential for violence – not with draconian physical security measures, but by establishing a culture allowing for students to feel comfortable reporting problems to staff, and training for staff to assure that they respond to those reports in a consistent, responsible way. Or, as a commenter to an ACLU blog post about school discipline wrote:

…when school cultures and climates change from a focus on control and discipline to a focus on relationship building, respect, and trust between all members of a school community.

One factor that seems to stick out from this episode, especially when compared to the aftermath of the Franklin Regional incident, is the amount of information being communicated to the general public. I can find no evidence on the South Fayette website that they employ a Communications or P.R. professional, such as Quaker Valley’s Tina Vojtko. It feels to me as if they could benefit from that.

No amount of laws, policing, or policymaking will change what is a cultural phenomenon without a serious look at how we raise our children. What they are taught to value at home is and will always be a critical component, perhaps diving into deeper areas of parenting and education than first thought.

For example, South Fayette has a state championship football team, and with it perhaps a robust athletic sub-culture. This is a nice way of saying that maybe the jocks rule.

I wonder what the Special Education budget at South Fayette looks like in comparison to that of the Athletic Department. That’s a discussion for another time.

 

Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique experience, but there’s a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.

Stephen Chbosky, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Christian Stanfield’s mother, Shea Love, told the Trib in a story published Wednesday that the incident and resulting outcry has transformed her normally reserved, introverted son. “He has a hard time speaking up for himself, but he’s looking at this as a fight for other people, not for himself”, Ms. Love stated. Indeed – Ms. Love initially chose to protect her son’s identity when speaking with Ben Swann‘s website, but this changed quickly once the local media got interested.

This statement, and Christian’s new-found self-confidence, reminded me of the above quote from a popular work of fiction, written by a native of neighboring Upper St. Clair.

Even with the plodding delay in getting the local media engaged, since then the events surrounding this incident have been rapid-fire – perhaps too fast.

State Rep. Jesse White (D-Cecil) jumped on the bandwagon with both feet, announcing that he would be introducing a bill to exempt the recording of bullying incidents from the state wiretapping statute that Christian was threatened with.

Trib reporter Aaron Aupperle dug deeper into this effort. In a story in Friday’s paper, he found a roadblock to this legislation in of all places the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The ACLU’s Legislative Director, Andy Hoover, stated “There are numerous ways for schools to address bullying without turning every kid into a spy with a camera. When you open up the wiretap act in this way, it leads to unintended consequences.”

I like Jesse White. I hope that he gets re-elected. His bill will likely founder or get amended to death because it wasn’t thought out very well. There definitely needs to be wiretap law reform, but it needs to apply to more than just this single issue. Victims and witnesses to violent crime are already exempt – build on that.

I have to give credit to the Tribune-Review for stepping up and bringing the issue to the local forefront. The rest of our local media, which essentially rode the Trib’s coattails, need to take a long hard look at themselves for trying to ignore what could be actions that contribute to events like Franklin Regional. This all seemed to be for the sake of not having to draw from sources such as Ben Swann, Alex Jones, or Matt Drudge.

The news sites run by these men wear their conservative, at times alarmist agendas out on their sleeve a little more than I would like to see.  The Trib, while apparently the least likely to dismiss these sites out of hand, still seems to live up to its advertising by keeping their viewpoint restricted to the Opinion page.

 

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.  

Stanley Kubrick, 1968

The many citizens that pleaded with our local media to investigate this further also deserve credit for not giving up until their demands for coverage were satisfied. Like Christian Stanfield and his mother, they supplied their own light to illuminate injustice and questionable practices.

Those voices will likely continue to resonate with those children who reside on the margins of the boxes that our society, media, and culture try to shove them into, those who love them, and those who will not rest until respect for everyone becomes as important an ‘R’ as the other three.

Theirs is an example that perhaps all of us can build upon.

Have a blessed Easter weekend.

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