OLEAN – A week after dozens of community members attended an Olean Education Council meeting in response to comments from an Olean director who is also a pastor, the district has taken no action formal.
Following the publication of several videos showing Joel Whitcher, co-director of Olean Intermediate Middle School, commenting on religion, sexual orientation, mental health, poverty, COVID-19 and politics as pastor of the Fresh Fire Worship Center in Allegany, the district school has yet to officially comment.
Superintendent Rick Moore said he could not speak on personnel matters, but said community outcry since last week’s protests had subsided.
“We haven’t had any big problems here, which is good,” he told the Olean Times Herald on Monday.
The district posted an announcement on Saturday seeking a new deputy high school principal. Moore said the announcement was to fill the position of former deputy director Mike Martel, who now serves as chief technology officer for the district.
“We’re just looking for someone to take his place,” Moore said. “It’s really to fill a vacant position. It has nothing to do with Joel Whitcher.
Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said state school boards ultimately need to review what actions the district can legally take regarding employee feedback.
“If he were to express them in the school premises, I think their ability to take action would be significantly greater than if he were to make these comments in the community,” Worona said. “It doesn’t mean the neighborhood is powerless either. It just means that they must be able to relate these comments to the school’s inability to pretty much function. “
The day after a Facebook page shared Whitcher’s videos, two Olean students started a petition on change.org calling for his resignation. The petition had received more than 2,100 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
The student who wrote the majority of the petition, which The Times Herald did not name, said she saw the initial video in a group post after it was shared by a friend. She said he asked them what we thought of the videos, and they agreed it was “outrageous and violently hateful” to the student body.
“I thought it was crazy that someone who really believed in these things was working in a state-funded public institution,” she continued. “Collectively, we decided we had to do something about it,” she said.
The student who first suggested the petition and created it online said she first saw the video on someone’s Snapchat profile and was “disgusted and confused” by Whitcher’s statements.
The student said she initially thought he quit or retired to share these thoughts publicly and was shocked to learn that he was saying them as he was still the director of the college.
“I couldn’t sleep that night, I wanted something to be done then,” she said. “It was very upsetting and I couldn’t help but think of his students who might be affected by his prejudices.”
In addition to the petition, students from Olean High School staged a peaceful protest on Wednesday afternoon, gathering in front of the school’s main entrance.
Following coverage of the school board meeting, the Olean Times Herald Facebook page received several comments from readers.
“I am so ashamed and heartbroken for the students who attend this school who are part of the LGBTQIA + community, who struggle with their mental health, who are Muslims,” one person commented. “Preach love and acceptance, not hate.”
However, another person commented, “Joel is one of the most amazing men I have ever met, he has such love for the people in our community. Just because he doesn’t tolerate sin and preaches against it, doesn’t mean he doesn’t like people and his work and doesn’t take it seriously. I am ashamed and ashamed of the community.
Other readers have considered the legal aspect of Whitcher’s comments regarding First Amendment rights versus professional obligations.
“Many educators have been shocked at the freedom of expression which has exceeded the limit for lesser reasons in mere posts (Facebook),” someone commented. “If they have a prejudice that will affect their performance in treating their students fairly, then it’s a job issue.”
“As many people have mentioned, he allowed his religious faith, but he is not allowed to share that belief in school,” added another. “However, with sharing on social media, what’s in school and what’s out of school is now even more unclear.”
Worona said public school employees have the right to due process regarding First Amendment rights outside of school. However, he said, “These statements can have repercussions not only on the inconvenience of people, but also on the proper functioning of the school district.”
Worona noted one case where an employee of a public school was convicted of manslaughter, but the incident took place outside of the school. However, he said the district did not continue to employ the person because his presence disrupted the school setting due to the employee’s involvement in the incident.
“Ultimately, educators have First Amendment rights, and whether those rights can be overridden by district concerns and issues will really depend on the connection between the demonstration of disruption,” Worona said.
After the students at Olean High School were made aware of the situation after the first video sharing, a group discussion was held with the majority of people willing to take action on the matter, according to the student who said. wrote the petition.
“We hope to get enough signatures to show the administration that it’s not just a small number of students who are unhappy. Community members, OHS alumni, parents and more stand in solidarity with us and want Joel Witcher to leave our school, ”she said. “Ultimately the goal is to make sure everyone is aware of Mr. Witcher’s opinions and Mr. Witcher’s words fired him as principal of Olean Middle School.”
The student who suggested and created the petition agreed.
“It was largely for awareness raising, but also to show how many people feel passionately about this situation,” she added.