EMMAUS, Pa. - East Penn School District officials declared their support for the championship Emmaus High School rifle team Monday night -- and took strong exception to people who arrived at the wrong conclusions regarding why the team's picture was not included in the school yearbook.
"To say we do not support the rifle team is absurd and offensive," said school board vice president Alan Earnshaw. "We are not afraid of guns. We are not ashamed that our students use those guns. We are proud of their accomplishments and we are pleased to support them.
"There has never been a hint that this board or any member of the administration has flagged in its commitment to provide this opportunity to students."
East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said he is "deeply saddened" by even the remote suggestion that the team's picture was kept out of the yearbook because of the gun control issue. "I see no reason why someone should have even hinted at that."
Earlier this month, school board candidate Chris Donatelli, whose son was on the championship rifle team, asked the board why the team's photo was not in the new yearbook.
Donatelli got an answer at Monday's school board meeting.
"This was nothing more than an oversight," said Seidenberger. "The picture was misplaced." He said the yearbook is put together by seven or eight students and a faculty advisor.
A CD of pictures apparently got misplaced somehow, echoed school board president Charles Ballard, who added: "Mistakes do happen."
Earnshaw said yearbooks are student-run publications. "When we rely on students, the unfortunate fact is sometimes things get overlooked."
Seidenberger gave the school board a report on the incident, but his report was not shared with the public. He said David Piperato, the high school's principal, is having a yearbook insert prepared about the rifle team's success for members of the team.
The superintendent read aloud two e-mails received by the school district, including one addressed to him, which he sarcastically called his favorite.
It stated rifle team members "are the future of America and will likely be Marine sharpshooters that will save your fat ass. You are a pathetic worm for not posting their accomplishments in the yearbook. You are less than a worm and have no right to be a superintendent of anything, other than a garbage can…May you rot in hell for your decisions to make these kids feel like they are doing something wrong."
Seidenberger said the e-mail was signed but he believes the signature is fictitious.
Said Earnshaw: "Cowardly, anonymous people sent offensively worded e-mails, with no knowledge of the facts and no knowledge of what this district has done to support that team.
"This board and this administration have continued to provide support for that program. We have paid for coaching, we have paid for transportation, we have paid for supplies. We have signed contracts to arrange for a shooting range for our students to practice on."
School officials said Emmaus is one of only five local high schools that have competitive rifle teams. The others are Freedom, Liberty, Salisbury and Southern Lehigh.
Ballard said he has been a supporter of the rifle team for the nearly 18 years he has served on the school board.
"It's important that the public know that team is honored in other ways," said Seidenberger. He said a banner inside the gymnasium soon will be updated to show the accomplishments of all the high school's teams, including the rifle team. He said its accomplishments also are memorialized in trophy cases.
Ballard said the team's success was announced by Dennis Ramella, the high school's athletic director, in Athletic Capsule, which is distributed to all district employees, as well as on the school's electronic marquee, athletic website and TV.
He said all team members will receive commemorative plaques and team pictures.
Seidenberger indicated Donatelli should have followed "the chain of command" by taking his concern to the high school's administration before going to the school board. "Nonetheless, we took the complaints seriously," said the superintendent.
Earnshaw said it was unfortunate Donatelli did not simply stick to the facts, rather than trying "to assume what motivations might be behind this."
At that Sept. 9 meeting, Donatelli received no explanation from the school board or district administration regarding why the team photo was not included in the yearbook.
After that meeting, Donatelli was asked by a reporter if he thought the team's photo was kept out of the yearbook because of the national debate over gun control. He responded: "I'd hate to think it would be that. We're just trying to get answers."
Said Earnshaw Monday: "It is truly unfortunate that motives were attempted to be ascribed. It's even more unfortunate that the press gave credence to those allegations."
Earnshaw also complained that during the last six or seven years, the high school's band program also has been seriously under-represented in the yearbook. He said Emmaus High has up to four different band programs, but they usually are "represented by one photo of the marching band, if we're lucky, in the yearbooks."
Willow Lane Elementary
In other business, Seidenberger said safety improvements made at Willow Lane Elementary cost the school district $73,000, $27,000 less than the $100,000 the district budgeted for that work.
East Penn resident Susan Coenen, who has two children attending Willow Lane Elementary, thanked the school district for its quick response to "a very dangerous situation that existed at Willow Lane last week."
She said buses serving the school now stop farther from the curb, so they can turn safely without going over the sidewalk "and running the risk of hitting students, staff or anyone else. I just want to thank you for making the safety of our students a top priority."
Coenen was the only member of the public to address the school board.
More public participation in board meetings?
Board member Lynn Donches is pushing her colleagues on the board to make its meetings more open to the public, by giving people more opportunities to speak.
"It's workable; it would show greater respect for the public," said board member Julian Stolz. "Just because we've done something the same way for a couple of decades doesn't mean we should keep doing it that way."
Currently, the school board allows people to speak only at the beginning of its meetings and it usually does not immediately respond to whatever issues they raise.
Said Earnshaw: "I don't see any compelling reason to change at this point." He's been on the school board for 12 years and said it is fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of the state's Sunshine Act. That was confirmed by board Solicitor Marc Fisher.
Ballard, the board president, said: "Although it is called a public meeting, this is actually a meeting held in public as opposed to the strict definition of a public meeting. I think I could find firm legal ground to establish that if it was necessary.
"The objective of this meeting is to have the board conduct its business. There are certain things we have to do in public. But this is not a forum for public speeches, not a place to argue with the public. It is a place to hear the public and for the board to make its decisions in public."
Donches said Lehigh County commissioners and Lower Macungie Township commissioners run efficient meetings with more opportunities for public participation.
But board member Ken Bacher said he attended a county commissioners meeting where discussion on just one agenda item continued for two or three hours.
Ballard said the issue of public participation in East Penn board meetings is due for a thorough review, because it was last done in 1992.
All board members will make suggestions about what changes, if any, they would like to see and pass them on to the administration. Those suggestions eventually will become a board-approved list of potential changes submitted to the Pennsylvania School Board Association's policy service, which will develop policy recommendations for the board's approval.
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