A summer recreation program for Fountain Hill children that was abruptly canceled at the end of July was halted due to a police investigation over alleged threats made by a former volunteer, concerned parents who attended Monday’s borough council meeting learned.
Recreation committee chair and councilwoman Jamie Johnson read an outline of the events which she said precipitated the decision by council to shut down the free weekday morning-and-evening program on July 31, eleven days before it had been scheduled to end.
Johnson said the events as described to her unfolded over a period of several weeks this summer, after the unnamed volunteer–who she described as a 20-year-old relative of a park employee–began “hanging out” at the park and “informally assisting the children.”
That person eventually asked the park manager if there were any open positions with the summer program and was told no, Johnson said, “but that the borough does permit volunteers.”
After a one-week vacation, Johnson said the manager returned to find that the would-be volunteer had reportedly been vaping inside the park building, which is a violation of park rules.
The park manager then reportedly had a conversation with the person and explained that vaping in the building is not permitted, after which they allegedly began vaping at the covered pavilion in the presence of children, Johnson stated.
Johnson said the park manager told her and acting borough manager Jason Quarry that the unnamed person had handed a vape device, showed “inappropriate pictures” and “made inappropriate comments” to a 12-year-old child.
After the park manager told the individual they were no longer welcome at the park/playground, “things escalated from there,” Johnson said. “Texts were exchanged, threats were made (and) social media pages were stalked.”
Johnson said the park manager questioned the 12-year-old in a private meeting in which the child reportedly said they were afraid because of the alleged threats.
After Johnson and Quarry learned of the situation, Johnson said she insisted that the matter be handed over to borough police “because of the alleged threats made.”
Johnson said council’s subsequent decision to end the program early this year “wasn’t made lightly” and “was made with the safety of the kids, the staff and the park manager in mind, as well as the liability issue with the borough.”
She said she did not make the decision independently, despite comments to the contrary made on social media.
She added that she thinks it will be in the borough’s best interests to budget for the hiring of a more experienced park program manager as well as a security officer next year.
“In my mind, (neither) the park program nor the pool (decision) is final, nor closed forever,” Johnson said, referring to the borough swimming pool that has been completely closed the past two summers.
Johnson’s statement was delivered after borough resident Anne-Marie Lee, speaking on behalf of a group of concerned parents whose children participated in it, questioned whether the events that had unfolded warranted shutting down the entire program.
A number of parents were also upset about the manner in which the decision to cut the program short was communicated to them, which she indicated was primarily via their young children.
“The first I heard about it was when my daughter came home crying,” Lee told council, adding that she believes worse things have happened during the program’s 30-plus year history that did not result in the entire program being terminated.
Jenn Levernier, whose daughter Kayleigh managed the summer program as lead counselor, also addressed council at the meeting.
Levernier said her daughter was in contact with both former borough manager Eric Gratz about last year’s program’s volunteers and Quarry regarding the clearances needed by this year’s crew.
She told council she wanted “to make sure there is not unfair light being shed on my daughter,” who she said was devoted to the program and the children who participated in it.
On the recommendation of solicitor Dave Berger, council later made a motion to formally close the park program for the remainder of the summer, which passed 6-1.
Voting against the motion and in favor of continuing the program through the end of this week was council president Norman Blatt.
Blatt cited the fact the the police investigation was over and that no charges were filed as a result of it in voicing his opinion that the program should resume, however briefly.
Fountain Hill Police Chief Ed Bachert, who was at the meeting, confirmed that the investigation was over and that he had recommended that the program be kept open.
Blatt claimed both he and Bachert were unaware that the program had been closed until after the fact; an assertion Johnson disputed.
“I think the park (program) should have remained open upon the recommendation of the police,” Blatt said in casting his no vote.
The final comments regarding the program at the meeting were made by resident Connor Moriarty, who asked whether staff would be paid for the hours they missed due to council’s decision to cancel it.
Council members indicated that they had not planned to pay the staff for any or all of the 11 work days they will have missed, but Johnson said she would ask the recreation committee to consider the possibility of paying them at their next meeting, which will be held Wednesday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at Fountain Hill Borough Hall.
She encouraged parents who attended the council meeting to attend the upcoming committee meeting, which is open to the public.