JACKSON TWP — Shouts about suicide, demands for new board members and outcries for Seneca Valley School District to completely overhaul its current anti-bullying system echoed throughout the high school auditorium during Monday’s school board meeting.
The meeting saw more public attention than usual after a lawsuit was filed by district teacher Michael J. Flood and his wife, Alecia Flood, of Zelienople, in U.S. District Court of Pittsburgh on Oct. 4 on their son’s behalf. The suit claims their son, a minor at the time and identified as “T.F.” in court documents, was tormented and suffered physical and psychological trauma as a result of two sets of false sexual assault allegations from other students beginning in 2017.
Seneca Valley School District is listed as a defendant in the suit along with former Seneca Valley student Megan Villegas and her parents; four students who are minors and their parents; the Butler County District Attorney’s Office; and Butler County.
In the wake of the suit, parents took to social media to share their students’ experiences with bullying.
On Monday, school board President Jim Nickel opened the floor for public comment by addressing the suit, which he said he and other district officials could not directly speak to.
“Just because something is contained in a lawsuit complaint does not mean it’s a fact,” he said. “We have many issues with the complaint.”
Nickel reiterated the district’s stance that the lawsuit is “without merit” and said the district hadn’t intended to comment on the lawsuit until papers were received, which did not happen until Oct. 10. He also said the district would not add further comment to respect the privacy of those involved in the suit.
Only one audience member addressed the lawsuit, while three others talked about bullying in the district.
Judy Wolfe, a Cranberry Township resident who was also a school board member from 1982-89, said she was bothered by the response of district officials and community members to the suit.
“We as adult leaders should show our young people how to support their issues without making the other side the enemy,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the district needs to help these students, “to navigate the muddy waters” in the aftermath of the suit. She also suggested the district bring in the Rachel’s Challenge positive school climate campaign as a complementary program to the school’s current anti-bullying policies.
From there, the discussion switched to more personal instances of bullying.
Christy Barnhart of Zelienople said her son has been bullied for about three years.
“I just think the problem with bullying in the district — and my son’s problems are probably not the worst and probably worse than others — but I think the problems in the district aren’t being dealt with,” she said. “It can impact a child.”
Barnhart said her family got to the point where they gave up trying to fix or report the problem because nothing was done about it.
Charity McLaughlin, a representative of the Justice for All group and an Evans City resident, gave an impassioned speech about what she’s seeing in the district.
“I want you all to know that I know you truly care for our community, our schools and our children” McLaughlin said.
Among her pleas, she asked district officials to think about how policies can be improved. McLaughlin implored the board to think about children who kill themselves as a result of bullying.
“I am not judging,” she said. “I am not condemning. I am just asking, please, make changes for the future.”
Ginni McDonough, a Harmony parent who spoke about her bullied son publicly through a few mediums to rally parents to advocate for policy changes, said she was representing a larger group of parents to initiate change within the district.
“If something isn’t working, that means you change it,” McDonough said.
Community members verbalized agreement with McDonough when she said the school’s use of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program should be eliminated. She said the program has been in place for 12 years and has failed students.
“We want Olweus gone,” she said. “No one thinks it’s working.”
Nickel said he and others in leadership would follow up with her questions but added that he wasn’t sure what the change should be or how long it would take to enact. Nickel said they would all need time to discuss these issues.