School board reverses course, reinstates gay actor’s anti-bullying presentation - TAI News
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The Cumberland Valley School Board holds a special meeting to discuss their decision to cancel an assembly featuring Maulik Pancholy, Wednesday, April 24, 2024 in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

A Pennsylvania school board that canceled an openly gay actor and author’s anti-bullying presentation due to concerns about his “lifestyle” has reversed course and reinstated the event at a local middle school.

The Cumberland Valley School District’s governing board voted 5-4 on April 25 to allow actor Maulik Pancholy, best known for his work on the sitcom “30 Rock,” to give a presentation at a May 22 assembly at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg as previously scheduled.

“We deeply apologize for any difficulties this decision may have caused for Mr. Pancholy, his family, our student body, the district staff, administrators, and mostly our CV community,” Board President Greg Rausch said before the April 25 vote. “A message on anti-bullying is important for students to hear and understand. We all live in a very diverse and constantly changing world. For our children to be successful after graduation, we need to provide them with a good education that includes the skills to help them interact with others of different faiths, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations.”

In addition to his acting work, Pancholy is a writer of children’s fiction. His most recent novel, “Nikhil Out Loud”, is about “a gay Indian American boy who learns the power of using his voice,” according to publisher HarperCollins

The Cumberland Valley School Board had voted unanimously on April 15 to disinvite Pancholy from his planned appearance at Mountain View. While one board member cited discomfort with the possibility of an author using school time to “make money off our students” as the reason for her vote, board member Bud Shaffner said, “If you research this individual, he labels himself as an activist, he is proud of his lifestyle and I don’t think that should be imposed upon our students at any age.”

That remark contributed to a wave of intense criticism, both from within the community and from across the country as the news began to spread. Community member Trisha Comstock created a petition in the aftermath of the vote, calling on the district to reinstate Pancholy’s appearance.

“Being LGBTQ+ isn’t a dirty little secret to protect our students from,” Comstock wrote in the petition. “To have someone with Maulik’s life experiences would have been inspirational for our students. It is important that we teach our children about diversity and acceptance from an early age … The cancellation of this assembly sends a harmful message to our students – that being different is something to be ashamed of or hidden away. We must challenge this narrative by reinstating the assembly with Maulik Pancholy.”

The petition had more than 9,000 votes by the time the school board met again in a special meeting on April 25.

Superintendent Mark Blanchard and nine other district administrators sent a letter to the school board that said,

“The purpose of this letter is to express to you directly the disappointment felt by the district’s cabinet-level administration in the board’s decision to introduce and subsequently approve unanimously a motion on April 15, 2024, to cancel the visit of Mr. Maulik Pancholy to Mountain View Middle School on May 22, 2024,” according to ABC27 News in Harrisburg.

Pancholy himself addressed the board’s decision on April 18, writing in a statement posted to Instagram: “When I visit schools, my ‘activism’ is to let all young people know that they’re seen. To let them know that they matter. When I talk about the characters in my books feeling ‘different,’ I’m always surprised by how many young people raise their hands – regardless of their identities and backgrounds – wanting to share about the ways in which they, too, feel different. That’s the power of books. They build empathy. I wonder why a school board is so afraid of that?”

The immediate opposition to the board’s decision prompted apologies not just from the board president, but from Shaffner for his remark about Pancholy’s “lifestyle.”

“I want to apologize to everyone this evening. Especially our students, staff and families,” Schaffner said at the April 25 meeting. “I will accept the blame because of the insensitive word I spoke on April 15. I fully understand the interpretation of my poor word choice. But that is not what I meant. I am not a prejudiced person. That is not who I am or what Cumberland Valley stands for.”

Some board members, though, continued to oppose Pancholy’s appearance.

“Whenever I was campaigning and going door to door, what I told everybody that I talked to is we need to get politics out of our schools,” board member Matthew Barrick said. “In this case, why would we invite someone who considers themself a political activist to come to talk to our children at our school? Get politics out of our schools.”

While the vote to reinstate Pancholy’s visit wasn’t unanimous, the author accepted the invitation back to Mountain View Middle School.

“I know what this would have meant to me growing up as an LGBTQ+ kid of color. Last night, you made sure every single student at MVMS knows they belong,” Pancholy wrote on Instagram. “I recognize there is much healing and work that still needs to happen. My heart is with you as your community continues to come together. Please know that your actions have been an inspiration to myself and to so many who have been watching.”

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