EAST ROCKHILL — In a statement at the Pennridge School Board's Jan. 26 meeting, board Vice-president Joan Cullen gave her first public response to calls for her resignation and/or removal from board leadership following her having attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C. that ended with violence. There have also been calls for the board to censure her.  

The meeting also included comments from members of the public in support of and against Cullen, who has previously been criticized for social media postings.

"The definitions of insurrection and sedition identify them as open revolt to governmental authority, often with violence or force. Assembling peacefully to advocate for election integrity as I and many others did on January sixth, does not meet that standard by any stretch. In fact, asking for election laws to be followed in accordance with the constitutions of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States is pretty much the exact opposite of insurrection and sedition as you are specifically requesting that the laws of your government not be cast aside, but followed to the letter. In any event, I am pleased that our peaceful advocacy was heard," Cullen said.

Hearings are being held on the 2020 Pennsylvania elections, she said.

"Regarding the violence committed by a fringe group on January sixth, my opinion is the same as always. Violence is wrong and the perpetrators should face consequences," she said.

There was also violence by fringe participants in last year's widespread unrest, she said. 

"Perhaps the U.S. Capitol breach could've been prevented if last year's violence had been universally condemned," Cullen said. "Sadly, anti-government violence has only continued since January sixth, but instead of everyone condemning all violence, some are choosing to lead witch hunts against innocent individuals who are not involved in any improper or illegal activities whatsoever." 

The current calls for her resignation are by the same people using the same tactics as previous calls for her resignation, she said. 

"Is my living my life and faithfully executing the duties of a school board director really the distraction and what's inappropriate, or is it the behavior of people who obsessively watch and report on my personal political activities which are completely legal, completely innocuous, and have had no bearing whatsoever on my school board work?" she said.

"We shouldn't punish and scrutinize people for personal beliefs and activities that do not affect their job performance," Cullen said. "It seems the worry over politics encroaching on our schools is only regarding those policies and politics that people don't like. Instead of appropriately keeping all politics out of school, they want to impose theirs and theirs alone."

False information is being spread about her, Cullen said. She won't respond to social media postings because that's not the forum for resolution, she said.

"People certainly have every right to find some of the things I believe maddening, just like I think some of what they believe is maddening, but none of us has the right to unjustifiably vilify others and strip them of what they've rightfully earned," Cullen said, "so when people attempt to do that to someone in our community, let's not allow it, whether our views align with that person or not. Let's cancel the cancel culture before it does any more harm to our society than it already has and let's focus on what we have in common, which is the shared desire to provide the very best education possible for our children."

Public comment

The board was initially scheduled to meet in the high school, where a protest was reported planned before the 7 p.m. meeting, but on the afternoon of the meeting, it was announced that district buildings were being closed at 6 p.m. because of inclement weather and that the board meeting would be held remotely.

"I was horrified to watch the events of January sixth, 2021 unfold at the U.S. Capitol. I am equally shocked and disgusted that one of our own board members, someone I trusted and voted for, chose to not only attend a rally based on lies and unproven alleged voter fraud, but then post about it all over social media as if it were something to be proud of," resident Sherri Lee said in an email read as public comment during the meeting.  "While I am aware that attending a rally is not against the law and is covered under First Amendment rights, the events that immediately followed the Stop the Steal rally were without doubt seditious and criminal. Our children and our community deserve better representation on the school board than someone who believes in lies and conspiracy theories."

Resident Andrea Tamburri said she also attended the Washington rally.

"I was in DC with a group of women January sixth to show support for election integrity for all Americans and the right to peaceful protest, which is what the majority did. Our group placed hands on a prayer card as we prayed together for the nation," she wrote in the email.

The group also intervened in an assault on a teenage boy, she said.

Community members are being attacked on social media because of differences in ideology, with some of the posts encouraging harm to others and their families, she said.

"Are our children of different ideologies safe in the community? Am I safe? These social media posts say we are not," she said. 

"We should expect to be able to agree to disagree without such venom and nastiness," Tamburri said. "It's unproductive and detrimental. Embrace decency."

"The personal attacks against Joan Cullen continue to get out of hand," resident Emily Geib wrote in her comment. "Attacking someone for sharing a different political opinion than you is not acceptable. Spreading lies or misinformation about someone is not acceptable. If you want to champion free speech, you must champion it for all people including those you disagree with." 

Cullen was elected to her position and should only be removed by election, Geib said. 

"Those who continue this witch-hunt mentality should be ashamed of themselves," Geib said. "Their lack of respect for true diversity of opinion is appalling. Please stop the hate."

Cullen did not do anything wrong in attending the rally, residents Janelle & Todd Montigney wrote in their email.

"The First Amendment is first for a reason. Just because you do not agree with someone's views does not give you the right to try to silence and bully them," they said. "Expressing your political ideologies is not a justifiable reason to kick someone out of office."

Everyone has a right to express their views, resident Duane Darrell said. 

"What happened on January sixth at our Capitol is a disgrace, as is what happened in the summer across our great country, but it was caused by a few bad apples that went too far," Darrell wrote.

The problem was not that there were protesters, but that some went with an agenda that was more than just to have their voices heard, he said. 

"We can't have freedom of speech for only a selected few to speak," he said. "The Constitution gives all of us that right. That includes Joan Cullen and any other person."

"It's ridiculous to disagree with Joan exercising her First Amendment rights and the district should immediately reaffirm their support for freedom to protest legally, which Joan did," resident Laura Schroy wrote in her email. 

The school district previously issued a statement saying Cullen was acting within her First Amendment rights and the district has no authority to remove her from office.

Isabel Gerhart, an eighth grade student in the district, said that she was commenting on what she sees as a white supremacy problem in the community.

"I am upset that the defense for people storming the Capitol, school member included, is that it is not any worse than what happened at Black Lives Matter protests. I went to three Black Lives Matter marches with other Pennridge kids and they were all peaceful," Gerhart wrote. "People handed out our voter information. They did not try to break into the Capitol and hurt members of Congress and change the election."

Resident Jean Hufstetler said she encourages the board to continue to allow Cullen to do the work she was elected to do and to not give in to intolerance and bullying.

"Accepting and working with others who may take a different approach is essential to building a strong and respectful community," Hufstetler wrote. "Attacking and punishing a person for exercising their constitutional rights is an attack on the pillars of democracy itself."

Resident Nicole Weiss said that while her family is fairly new to Pennridge, in that time, she has seen Cullen repeatedly embarrass the district.

"Yes, she does have a right to free speech, as we all do," Weiss wrote, "but while serving as a member of our school board, I feel her public comments and actions have been on the side of extreme, and some form of action should be taken."

"Joan Cullen must be removed from her position. We will not back down," resident Mike Strauss wrote in his email.

"I think most of us can agree that January sixth was one of the worst moments in our nation's history as not only we adults, but many of our children, watched terrifying violent acts of treason taking place," resident Stephanie Regina said. 

Other districts responded by condemning the violence, calling for unity and providing guidance to teachers on how to handle discussions with students, she said, but that didn't happen at Pennridge.

"Of course, we all have our right to our opinions, but this isn't about opinions," Regina wrote. "This is about addressing the intentional violent disruption of the democratic process of the very country we ask all 7,000 of our students to pledge allegiance to every day."

She said she is not asking that anyone be removed from the board, but is asking for the board to provide leadership and to take seriously the actions and behaviors of board members.

At the beginning of the meeting, Superintendent David Bolton asked Michael Miller, the board's solicitor, to explain a portion of the guidelines for public comments. 

Following the meeting, there were social media postings saying that not all the emails sent in for the meeting had been read.

In response to an emailed question for this article about some of the comments not having been read at the meeting, Bolton gave the following answer:

"As the solicitor indicated at the beginning of the meeting, the District adheres to Policy 903 that requires that comments must not exceed the time limit, be personally directed, abusive, obscene, or irrelevant. Each and every comment was reviewed by the solicitor who acts as a parliamentarian. The comments were read without names and there was no identification of an individual therefore allowing each comment to be evaluated on its own merits.

"While many statements were appropriate, there were statements that included observations within the statement that did not meet the standards of Policy 903. When in person, it is possible to correct or engage with a speaker to keep them within bounds to Section 903. When the District is in a virtual setting, it cannot engage with a speaker and it is unfair to edit someone’s statement, accordingly, those statements were considered in excess of what Section 903 permits."

As with all Pennridge School Board meetings, the Jan. 26 one can be viewed on the district's YouTube page. On the night after the meeting, the video had about 800 views.  

   

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