BLAIRSVILLE-SALTSBURG: Parents voice complaints about SMHS principal
March 20, 2014 11:00 AM
by MARGARET HARPER
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CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP — Nearly 100 parents, staff and community members are calling for the removal of Saltsburg Middle/High School Principal Allan Berkhimer, alleging, among other complaints, that he unjustly disciplined students through the use of suspensions.

Parents Frank and Stacy Plowman, who solicited a petition for Berkhimer’s removal “by either termination or transfer,” and other concerned parents and students packed Wednesday’s school board meeting to air their complaints.

As of early this morning, the petition had 96 signatures, Stacy Plowman said.

[Click here to view the content of the petition.]

During the public comment portion of the meeting, the Plowmans and other parents complained to the board and solicitor about what they believe is “ineffective and dysfunctional leadership,” “substandard communications skills” and “unprofessional behavior,” according to the petition.

The petition lists grievances including:

• “Cannot resolve conflict without contacting state police or superintendent (unlike other building principals throughout the district)”

• “Violating student and staff civil rights”

• “Unfair and inconsistent discipline on students and staff”

• “Failure to communicate with parents when students are being interrogated”

As of press time, Superintendent Tammy Whitfield had not responded to an email sent at 12:36 a.m. today seeking comment on the allegations, and Berkhimer had not responded to an email sent at 7:24 a.m. today.

A call to Whitfield this morning seeking comment was returned by Alice Santoro, administrative assistant to Assistant Superintendent Ian Magness. Santoro said she was instructed by Whitfield to relay a message that until the parents officially provide a copy of the documentation to the district, school officials will not comment.

This morning, the Plowmans were still circulating the petition.

At Wednesday’s meeting, district solicitor Gary Matta addressed the upset and frustrated parents who were advised to provide complaints in writing so he could conduct an investigation.

A number of parents Wednesday had tales of what they believed were unnecessary suspensions.

“Our children are getting suspended at the drop of a hat,” Stacy Plowman said.

Plowman said there have been 32 suspensions issued by Berkhimer this year.

The Plowmans, who were asked by Matta not to discuss personal specifics that may violate privacy during the public comment portion of the meeting, provided details after the meeting regarding the suspension of their son Frankie, a Saltsburg freshman.

Frankie, the Plowmans said, was suspended after an incident that started by placing Post-It notes spelling “PROM” along with flowers on the windshield of his girlfriend’s vehicle, in a creative “promposal,” asking her to go to the school prom with him.

The day he placed the notes on her car, he had been signed out of school by his mother and decorated the truck while he waited for her in the parking lot, Stacy Plowman said.

He re-entered the school to find her after being let in by another student, as she is a cheerleading co-adviser and was collecting uniforms, she said in an email with additional information. When he re-entered, she said, he unknowingly violated a rule.

The actions with the Post-It notes and re-entry to the school ended in a two-day out-of-school suspension, she said. At first, she said, officials tried to punish him for vandalism, which didn’t stick. She said she was told after 45 minutes of deliberation between Berkhimer and Whitfield that the offense was classified under “other.”

But she contends the issue goes deeper, and that Frankie was targeted because Berkhimer was retaliating against the way Plowman handled a “sexting” issue with a cheerleader in January, an issue she contends was handled properly.

Other parents said their children have been suspended for issues such as pushing a disabled car out of traffic, complained of students being suspended weeks after an incident has happened, or of numerous students being pulled from class to fill out written incident reports for trivial issues.

Parents urged the district and Matta to act quickly and report on their investigation by the board’s next regular meeting in April.

But Matta said next month may be too soon to have answers. He gave parents guidelines of 10 days to submit grievances in writing.

Some parents expressed fear of retaliation for submitting complaints. Matta assured them that would not be tolerated. He assured parents he would investigate, and said even before the meeting that district officials already knew it was a concern.

Stacy Plowman questioned any possible conflicts of interests in the investigation, such as complaints about Superintendent Tammy Whitfield being in charge of an investigation.

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