I was very proud when I read that West Orange High School, located less than a mile from my home and where my child will most likely attend when she’s old enough, chose not to discipline students that, like so many others, protested gun violence by choosing to walk out of school on February 21st.
While I have disagreed with many of the moves and decisions superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky has made during his tenure, I believe he and other officials handled this one perfectly, as he explained his decision:
“It was a small group of students. The walk out took place during their lunch. The students remained on campus. The students expressed to their peers their desire to maintain a safe environment at their school. The staff was unaware in advance that it was taking place. The staff administrators monitored the demonstration for the safety of the students. Students will not be disciplined as is customary when a peaceful demonstration occurs at school.”
The school’s principal Hayden Moore, went one step further, tweeting his support:
Initially, I was simply happy with the way my town’s school officials handled the situation, but these feelings were cast in stark relief when compared to how those in charge at the high school I attended reacted under the same circumstances.
I only learned about it because the story went viral.
I don’t keep up with news from my hometown. My siblings fled the first chance they got and I followed suit. My parents moved shortly after all of us had graduated. And my closest friends have either passed away or moved to the other side of the country. There was no reason to return.
I have been back once in the past decade and that was only because I was attending an author event in a neighboring town so I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane.
Yet I continue to read about my alma mater because it has been in the news more in the past few years than it was for the first thirty-five years of my life — and none of it for a good reason.
Pennridge, the school district in which I spent my youth, the high school for which I served as student council vice president and varsity basketball co-captain, has completely lost its way and has, quite frankly, become an embarrassment.
The most recent news came when more than 200 students chose to participate in the National School Walkout and Pennridge School District administrators decided to give each and every one of them Saturday detention:
‘Just to be clear, no student will be disciplined because they expressed any particular viewpoint or opinion. Rather, the disciplinary consequence will be given for willfully breaking a school rule about leaving the building without permission,’ Superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan wrote in a message to parents and guardians…‘The administration does not deem it safe to allow students to leave the building and is not endorsing or permitting such conduct. Students who nonetheless elect to leave the building during the school day without permission will receive the consequences which would normally apply in such circumstances,’ Rattigan wrote…
(Quick aside: I graduated twenty years ago and leaving the building— even going to the parking lot to get something from your car during lunch — was an enormously big deal and was disciplined as harshly as any other rule back then. It’s nice to see that nothing has changed in two decades.)
The irony, of course, is that the school’s decision to enforce the rules regardless of extenuating circumstances amid a nationwide movement had the opposite of the desired effect, bringing even more positive attention to the students and negative attention to the administrators. While most districts, like West Orange, allowed the walkout to proceed and then crafted a productive dialogue around it, Pennridge’s draconian reaction led to national media coverage and caught the attention of the likes of Alyssa Milano, Patton Oswalt, and many others.
The school’s student handbook, another relic that refuses to die, stipulates that Saturday morning detentions take place from 8 to 10 a.m. and during that time students must remain in their seats and do school-related work. They are “prohibited from talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, or placing one’s head on the desk or against the wall.”
Well, the handbook doesn’t say anything about staging a sit-in, so when it came time for the first group of the 225 to serve their Saturday detention, they once again refused to be silenced:
On Saturday, the first group of students involved in the walkout were scheduled to serve detention. Rather than sitting in their assigned seats, however, the 46 teens decided to use their detention to stage another protest, taping the names of Parkland victims to their shirts and sitting silently in a circle with arms linked, a small pile of flowers between them. Hoping their protest might find a national audience, the students tagged all their social media posts with the phrase #Pennridge225.
It’s the real life 2018 version of The Breakfast Club, but with a national reach. #Pennridge225 immediately joined #NeverAgain as the hashtags used by those attempting to prevent more gun violence in schools and a Twitter account named Never Again Penn was created.
The remaining students still scheduled to serve detention also plan to protest. For their part, school district officials said the students will not get in any more trouble for protesting during detention, one of the very few smart choices that group has made in recent years.
It’s gotten so bad that for a time the school district’s Wikipedia page included this (uncited) tidbit: “Many believe that the school board is overrun with NRA-backed human-rights violators or conservative elderly non-educators who care more about guns than the lives of the students.”
How did we get here?
Pennridge School District, founded in 1952, spans 95 square miles, ranging from the main town sections of Perkasie, where the high school is located, and Sellersville to suburban communities out to rural farm lands. Driving from one side to the other can take nearly an hour. There are about 7,200 students enrolled in the entire district, 2,300 of them in the high school. It’s a good school, ranked in the top ten percent of the nearly 700 high schools in the state of Pennsylvania.
The school has always had its issues, mostly due to its location. A sprawling, rural district with large swaths of forests and dark, twisting roads, it has long been home to teens drinking in the woods and driving much too fast — with one often following the other — so that stories of car crashes and deaths were sadly not as unique as one would expect.
In the early 2000’s, it felt like I was always returning home to attend one funeral after another. In recent years, the area, like so many throughout the country, has been plagued by a rash of opioid use to go along with the drinking. A question at a town meeting focused on the drug epidemic in the area included the question, “Why are drugs so cheap to buy in Sellersville?” One of the results on UrbanDictionary sums it up even more bluntly:
Perkasie used to be a quaint, somewhat cute town but these days its [sic] filled with heroin shooting, coke snorting, [and] bar flies and it’ll stay that way until people realize there is more to the world than this town.
In light of the struggles the region is facing, the organized incompetence and poor leadership at the school district becomes even more glaring. In fact, things have gotten so bad that in August, 2016, a new Twitter account was created under the handle Pennridge Reform. That account’s bio includes the following: “Here to make Pennridge a better place, because the school board won’t.”
There are at least three lawsuits alleging that for more than a decade the school district has dismissed or ignored both sexual and racial harassment of students, including one in which the plaintiff was told to “suck it up” and that the assistant principal had “had enough” of her complaining:
By her count, she told school officials at least 50 times that she was being harassed and threatened by the boy she’d dumped.
But according to a federal lawsuit filed against the school district in August, officials accused [her] of lying about the abuse, called her ‘crazy’ and ‘a misguided kid,’ and said that she was being a ‘drama queen.’
Then there’s this anecdote concerning 14-year-old Modupe Williams, the only black girl in her grade who reported harassment (emphasis mine):
Students started taunting Williams for reporting the harassment to police, who arrested the alleged callers. According to the complaint, one later said to Williams, ‘How fucking drunk were your parents when they named you ‘Modupe,’ which is a Nigerian name. In a court document, the school said, ‘While this comment may have been insulting to [Williams], there are no racist or sexist connotations that can be gleaned from the comment.’
There was also the student that claimed another student raped her and after one of that alleged assailant’s friends began harassing her, Pennridge principal Gina DeBona arranged a meeting between the two only to call it “a big waste of time.” In response, her mother wrote an email to school officials in which she expressed that her “heart is broken.” She also claims she asked the assistant principal for the name of the Title IX coordinator at Pennridge but “he didn’t know who the person was or what exactly their duties were.”
Recently, after the district filed a motion to have the Title IX case dismissed, a federal judge ruled that the:
allegations are sufficient to show DeBona had a ‘custom or practice’ of failing to investigate and/or address complaints of sexual harassment.
This isn’t an accident. This isn’t an oversight. This is a pattern of repeated behavior. Other instances that have occurred just in the last few years include:
That softball coach? He was hired despite warnings about “an issue with him texting.” That math teacher? He initially wasn’t fired even after pleading guilty to the charges. My school has become a disgrace and an embarrassment.
This is no way to run a prison, let alone a school. The district continues to fail its students in the most important ways, ignoring their plights and neglecting to keep them safe, resulting in events that will affect their lives for years to come.
It’s clear that if you want to get the full attention of the Pennridge School District administration, you need to do something unconscionable— like leaving the building during school hours.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.