Note: This story has been updated with a statement from ABC News.
A special meeting Thursday evening of the Saucon Valley School Board about an ABC News documentary under production about racial tension in schools was sometimes contentious, with a majority of parents in attendance asking board members to rescind a Location Release Form signed by former superintendent Monica McHale-Small. The form grants producers from the company’s documentary division–Lincoln Square Productions–permission to film on the campus and spells out the terms under which that should take place.
Ultimately, after about two hours of hearing comments from parents–many of whom said they are distressed about the fact that cameras from a national media outlet will be in schools, as well as a lack of transparency on the part of the district–the board voted 5-2 not to rescind the form.
It also declined to affirm the form in light of questions raised about its legality, opting instead (by a vote of 6-1) to suspend the district’s participation while administrators and the board’s solicitor engage the production company regarding possible modifications to it.
“I feel that is the best option at this time,” said board member Ralph Puerta, after suggesting the suspension of the form as an alternative to either rescinding or affirming it.
Board member Ed Inghrim, who cast the only vote against the motion to suspend the form and supported rescinding it, said he didn’t believe there was a point to the suspension.
“They don’t have to renegotiate,” he said of the production company. “We’re not going to gain anything.”
Inghrim was also the board or administration member who, when asked, said he would not agree to appear in the documentary.
“I met with these producers for two hours in my home,” he said. “I made it very clear that there was no way I was ever going to appear digitally in this documentary, because in my opinion, negative sells.”
Whether the board ultimately does negotiate modifications to it or votes to rescind it could prove to be a moot point, because at the end of the meeting a producer with ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions who introduced himself as Westley briefly addressed the board and told them, “we’re happy to not film the school.”
As an audience member attempted to ask him a question he quickly exited the Audion, stating that he had to take a phone call.
Saucon Source has reached out to ABC News for comment, and the company released the following statement Friday afternoon:
We appreciate the support of the school district and many in the community to help tell this important story. However, after listening to the concerns raised by some parents in the community, we are withdrawing our request to film inside the school. As you know, we have not filmed on campus since the school year began. The documentary is still moving ahead and we’re grateful to the families and individuals who are participating.
Some audience members expressed surprise and disappointment that Lincoln Square producers had been present for at least part of the meeting without acknowledging or introducing themselves, or being acknowledged by members of the board, some of whom said they knew they were in attendance.
Parent Terry Smith called their failure to speak on their own behalf a “transparency” issue.
“I didn’t know they were here,” Puerta said, to which Smith responded, “Exactly.”
“But why does it matter?” Puerta then asked.
An unidentified producer stated that they came to the meeting to listen, and board member Sandra Miller defended their right to do that.
“They weren’t here to produce,” she said.
Board president Michael Karabin said they voluntarily terminated their plans to film the meeting, which was streamed live and is available for viewing on YouTube.
At the center of much of the discussion Thursday was the one-page release form, which was signed June 22 by former district superintendent Monica McHale-Small–who retired last month–and without the knowledge of either board solicitor Mark Fitzgerald or the board itself, Fitzgerald said at the meeting.
In fact, Fitzgerald said, no one knew of its existence until recently and it was not made available to board members until last week.
When asked if he thought McHale-Small had the authority to sign the form, Fitzgerald answered, “No, I do not.”
In response to a question from parent Eric Luftig about whether the form “is even a legal document,” Fitzgerald said, “that is a muddled question.”
Although unaware of the signed form, McHale-Small did discuss the documentary proposal with at least some school board members early on, and received a favorable response from at least some of them.
Board member Susan Baxter said she was initially skeptical of the proposal and did not want to meet with the filmmakers, but ultimately did, along with Karabin, in an informational meeting over the summer.
“Once I got down there and listened to these fellows I was absolutely very impressed,” she said. “My mind was completely made up that I was not in favor of this, but then I met them.”
“We haven’t really given the whole community the chance to hear from them,” she said.
Inghrim shared an opposing view, which he said is shaped by both his own perceptions of race issues in the district and by student safety and other concerns.
He’s been a board member for 12 years and for the first 10 he heard no complaints about racism, he said.
“Something’s changed, and I don’t think it’s the Saucon Valley community,” he stated.
Given the current political climate in the country an “anti racist…nutball” could also target the school because of its involvement in the project.
If they had been given the opportunity, he said he hoped the board never would have approved the release form in the first place.
“We need to change our policy to make sure this never happens again,” he said. “The superintendent approved this board being liable.”
At that point an unidentified man shouted from the audience, “Who will pay for the lawsuits?”
The district is already embroiled in a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges racial discrimination in its schools, but Fitzgerald said he doesn’t believe footage from the documentary could potentially be used as evidence in that suit.
Inghrim’s concerns about safety echoed those of a number of parents who spoke out against any documentary filming taking place in schools.
Parent Victoria Wolfe said her daughter is a TV reporter for a Fox News affiliate in Texas, and that her knowledge of her daughter’s job has helped mold her opinion.
“I do know what is important to the news reporter, and it’s ratings,” she said.
“(When the documentary airs) all the nation is going to hear is ‘racism,’ no matter what they say,” she said. “Racism incites hatred, and hatred incites death… We’re going down a dangerous, slippery slope. It’s unacceptable.”
Referring to McHale-Small, she questioned how she was allowed to put the district in this situation, although the school district has said “nothing in the School Code mandates a formal vote for such a project to proceed.”
“One woman–our old superintendent–had the power over everybody in this room? And they’re putting our kids in danger? I don’t agree. Thumbs down,” Wolfe said.
“We could be the next (Charlottesville) Virginia,” another mother, Noelle Kramer, told the board. “I don’t want that in our community. I don’t want the nutjobs coming to our community.”
Referencing a recent incident publicized on social media like the 2,500-member Hellertown, Pennsylvania Facebook group, in which protesters carrying signs that disparaged women and certain minority groups appeared outside a Main Street, Hellertown, business one night, Kramer told the board that “we already had an incident down on Main Street. We don’t want a repeat of that.”
Other parents questioned why an email about the documentary that was sent by acting superintendent Dr. Susan Mowrer-Benda Aug. 8 had reached so few of them.
In a statement on the district’s website Thursday, the district blamed a glitch in its Chalkboard email system for the error.
It was stated at the meeting that the email reached about 50 percent of high school parents, but when one parent at the meeting asked for a show of hands by those who received the email only a few hands went up.
“I did not get the email,” said parent Nancy Rose. “I think this was handled in an incredibly underhanded, bizarre manner.”
“My background is journalism. You cannot control journalism,” she told the board. “You can take a sentence…and do a 180.”
Rose said she thinks Saucon Valley was an appealing prospect for the documentary’s producers because of its size.
“I think they think we are too small to do anything,” she said. “They’re not going to go into a big city and try to get away with this.”
She also brought up the 1982 pop song “Allentown” by Billy Joel, and how it had a lasting effect on people’s impressions of the nearby city–and not in a good way.
“That is where we are headed with Saucon Valley,” she said. “I think we are about to take a giant step backwards and get slammed by ABC.”
Two students who spoke against the documentary are members of the Saucon Valley High School football team, Steven Rose and Chris Smith, both of whom joined their parents at the meeting to oppose the filming in schools.
If Saucon Valley is portrayed as a racist community, Rose said he is concerned that portrayal will haunt him in later life.
“I think we should simply just focus on fixing the issues in the school,” he said.
“It’s been a distraction to our learning, and we don’t need that here,” added Smith.
A vocal minority of parents spoke out passionately in favor of allowing filming in schools, where it has already been curtailed, after producers agreed not to film in any classrooms and instead focus on the school’s Spirit and Equity and Inclusion committees formed to help combat racism.
“I was very surprised to find out how many people in our community didn’t really realize how many episodes (involving racism) occurred in our schools,” said Ron Salmon. “To say we don’t have a problem is a little bit of an understatement.”
Salmon cited several previously discussed incidents in schools involving racism, including:
- An incident in which a Confederate flag was “draped over a black child.”
- An incident in which a black student was told she needed to ask permission to use a water fountain.
- An incident in which a black student eating chicken was called the ‘N-word.’
These incidents and others have already been widely reported by regional and even national media, Salmon said, but the district now has an opportunity to help construct a new narrative by using this documentary as a vehicle to showcase what it is doing to combat racism.
“(The producers) were attracted because of the positive narrative going on in our community,” Salmon argued. “If they wanted to just find a racist community, there are a lot of better options for them to choose than Saucon Valley.”
“Because (Lincoln Square Productions is) part of Disney/ABC they have a fairly strict ethics code,” he told the board. “They can’t take or give money to anybody… This is actually a documentary team–not reality TV… Let’s continue to put our best foot forward, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.”
The same reasoning was used by board member Bryan Eichfeld in support of the documentary, although he admitted, “I don’t think this was handled well.”
“My thought was, ‘How do you get a positive spin?’ without the district’s participation,” he said.
“I don’t trust the media at all. I’m very conservative,” he added. “I understand the concerns and I’m really concerned that this documentary can turn out bad for the district, but there’s nothing we can do…”
“We’re very proud of the work that’s going on here,” said parent John Paulson, who said he believes the documentary will reflect that.
His son, Joel Paulson, also believes in the documentary and the potential power it has to change people’s minds for the better, not only here, but across the country.
“I trust somebody to document what’s going on here. I want someone to document what’s going on here,” he said, noting that he himself has experienced several things he called “unfortunate” as a Saucon Valley student.
Trust in the filmmakers or the lack of it was a core issue addressed by both sides throughout the night and opinions varied greatly.
Parent Cindy Nicholas said she lost faith when she learned at a meeting with Lincoln Square producers last week what the subjects of the other three hour-long documentaries in the four-part series they’re producing for A&E Network are.
“The other episodes are…the one is a shooting in Portland, Oregon…a subway stabbing in Seattle…or is it Utah? I don’t know… And then the other one is (about) violence and racism in Europe,” she said.
“I don’t want Saucon to be up against those three other subjects,” she told the board. “It’s just not a good lineup. How’s a school with positive things going to fit up against a stabbing, a shooting and violence in Europe? They don’t jive together.”
Nicholas also criticized the fact that the school will have no editorial control over the finished product.
She said that if the documentary production continues, her family is considering sending their children to a local private school, and she asked why the district hadn’t considered using local media outlets such as Saucon Source and The Peak TV to share the story of how it is addressing racism.
“Why does it need to go to such a grand scale?” she asked. “I don’t feel like national news is the forum. And as much as I hope to spread positivity, joy and great things happening in our school, I wonder if there’s a better avenue.”
Parent Chris Stump told the board that he, too, does not trust ABC to produce a documentary that doesn’t portray Saucon Valley negatively.
“When a superintendent has unilateral authority to not just invite ABC News into our school, but our community…that is a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “The fact that most parents in this room didn’t know anything about this until maybe three or four weeks ago is a travesty.”
Stump issued a rebuke to McHale-Small, who he said overstepped her bounds as superintendent, first with an interview she did for a story about Saucon Valley published by Rolling Stone magazine in the spring.
Fitzgerald said if the board would rescind the release form, that would be a rebuke as well.
That did not happen, and at least one board member criticized audience members for criticizing McHale-Small.
“I wish you would also tone down your criticism of the past superintendent,” Puerta told Stump. “The things we are talking about that are a good part of the story were initiated by Dr. McHale-Small.”
To watch the full meeting on YouTube, click here.
The next Saucon Valley School Board meeting will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. in the high school Audion.
Absent from Thursday’s meeting were board members Mark Sivak (with prior notice) and Jack Dowling.
In attendance at the meeting was incoming superintendent Dr. Craig Butler, who announced that his first day on the job will be Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Speaking at the very end of the nearly three-hour meeting, Butler struck an optimistic tone with brief remarks he made.
“I am more than pleased to officially become your next superintendent next Tuesday,” he said, adding that he was proud of how the evening demonstrated to those students present that for “the most part adults can talk about difficult issues and try to resolve them together.”
“If there is a racial incident, or bullying incident, it will be dealt with permanently and swiftly by policy,” he promised.
“It will be my goal to be very transparent with the community,” he added.