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Midstate school board member resigns in protest over sex toy scandal

Written by Merriell Moyer/The Lebanon Daily News | May 10, 2018 7:24 AM
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Northern Lebanon School District school board member Beth Heckmen, second from right, resigned from her position at a May 8, 2018 school board meeting in protest of a sex toy scandal involving three principals. (Photo: Merriell Moyer)

(Undated) -- A Northern Lebanon school board member resigned from the board Tuesday in protest of a recent sex toy scandal involving three principals in the school district.

"As my integrity is very important to me I cannot continue to serve on a board that does not hold themselves or the administration accountable," board member Beth Heckmen said at the close of Tuesday evening's school board meeting. "I apologize to the voters, but clearly I am a better advocate off the board than I have been on the board."

Heckmen's resignation was effective immediately, and she told the assembled group of about 50 parents and teachers that she was concerned for the school district's students.

"Those who were to hold themselves to a higher standard did not do that. Now the validity of them being able to hold students accountable is completely gone," Heckmen said. "Students will never respect (the principals) again."

Some members of the board may have known about the existence of the sex toy that three principals were passing around as a joke for far longer than previously believed, according to one concerned parent.

"The sex toy was found and it was taken to the office," Arlo Miller, whose daughter is a student in the school district, alleges. "A letter was sent to the school board, but they were all aware of it prior to that. That's why they were doing behind-closed-door meetings since February."

Miller said he personally brought the matter to the attention Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The teachers and parents who told their story to Lebanon Daily News said the three administrators: High School Principal Jennifer Hassler, Assistant High School Principal Benjamin Wenger and Middle School Principal Brad Reist were reported to have been throwing around the sex toy in the office during school hours earlier this year, but few details about the incident have been released by the school district.

Superintendent Erick Bentzel and School Board President Glen Gray said they could not comment on the situation because it was a personnel matter.

Miller provided a copy of a letter that was allegedly sent to the school board in April, well before the discussion on whether or not to demote Hassler, Wenger and Reist was on the board agenda for the May 1 meeting.

Miller and his wife, Shannon, claim the copy of the letter they received was the result of a phone call they received at 8:30 p.m. one night in early April with an anonymous caller giving them directions of where to find the information. It was taped to the back of a guard rail off the side of a Fredericksburg road.

"Somebody called us anonymously and said to pick it up. People do not want their names out there. They're scared (of the repercussions)," Shannon Miller said.

The letter discusses alleged inappropriate conduct by some teachers in the school district in years past - an incident involving two teachers who were caught in a sexual act in a classroom and another teacher who got a student pregnant - as well as the recent sex toy incident.

"Then we get to the administrators who wrapped up a sex toy that was found at the high school, presented it to one of the other administrators who then threw it across the room during their cabinet meeting in the school," the anonymous letter says. "Meanwhile, Dr. Bentzel stood there and did nothing to stop or correct this behavior and allowed it to continue."

The sex toy is described as being a pink phallus about 10 inches long and about 3 inches thick with a suction cup at its base, according to Arlo Miller, who said someone from the school district described it to him.

"It was found in a locked locker room that only athletes have access to. It was stuck against a wall," Miller was told.

Several teachers from the school district, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the school district, confirmed that the sex toy was found stuck to a wall in a boys locker room by a buildings and grounds staff member, who told Amy Sell, the board vice president, and board member Rachel England about his discovery after a Dec. 12 Christmas party at England's home.

When asked for a comment regarding the sex toy incident, England and Sell declined to comment.

The teachers also confirmed the stories in the letter regarding the two teachers caught in a sexual act in a classroom and the teacher who got a student pregnant in the past few school years were true.

There was no investigation into where the sex toy came from or why it was in a locker room at school, the teachers said, and they said none of the coaches were notified about the discovery of the toy.

Later, the sex toy was given as a gag gift to one of the principals when the administrative staff had their Christmas party at school. Superintendent Erik Bentzel was present when the sex toy was unwrapped, according to the teachers.

The teachers said they are concerned there was no investigation immediately after the sex toy was found. Without an investigation it is unknown if the presence of the toy was a one-time prank by students, something used in hazing or a remnant from a sexual assault on a child.

Instead, the toy, which was dubbed "Mr. Pinky," instantly became a joke among the administrators, and the teachers who spoke to Lebanon Daily News believe it is something the members of the board who were aware of it just wanted to cover up and forget about.

An investigation into the origins of the sex toy was conducted in late April and early May with the members of the wrestling team being interviewed, the teachers said. The sex toy was discovered around the same time the wrestling team would have been using the locker room.

The superintendent is in charge of the discipline of administrative staff members, including principals, according to district policies available on the school district website, but Bentzel did not discipline the three principals allegedly involved in the sex toy incident, the teachers said.

Instead, discipline of the principals was left to the school board, who decided on May 1 not to demote the trio to teaching positions. They will be disciplined, but the form that discipline will take cannot be discussed publicly, according to school board member Staci Murray.

However, according to board member Nate Erdman, the board was not voting to demote the principals May 1. Instead, they were voting whether or not to approve a hearing to demote that would have been conducted by a third party and not the board.

Erdman, who said he felt guilty for not speaking out at the May 1 meeting, spoke up during Tuesday's board meeting.

"I felt like it was the replay over and over of the last words I heard Joe Paterno say when he was in his debacle and that was, 'With the advantage of hindsight I would do things differently,'" he said. "And I do have the advantage of hindsight now, so I am going to make this right by speaking tonight."

Erdman said the school district's solicitor, Howard Kelin, described the incident with the three principals as "serious, egregious and fireable offenses."

The board ignored the advice of the solicitor after voting to not go forward with the hearing even after spending about $35,000 in legal fees for the attorney to investigate, according to Erdman.

He said from what Kelin told them, if they took appropriate disciplinary action in this situation it could prove to a judge in any future lawsuit that the situation was not brushed aside. 

A petition was started April 13 for teachers to support Hassler, Wenger and Reist in an effort to keep them from being demoted by the school board, the teachers said. This was before the decision to demote was added to the May 1 board agenda.

The teachers who spoke to reporters said they were approached multiple times by other teachers to sign the petition. They were told by those passing around the petition that administrators were caught doing some "somewhat inappropriate things" behind closed doors and now they were going to be fired.

"Do you support your administrators?" the teachers with the petition asked. A teacher's signature would indicate support of the three.

The teachers interviewed by LDN said two of the administrators, Reist and Wenger, could be seen in the hallways looking at the names on the petitions as the teachers supporting the administrators made their way from classroom to classroom.

Because of the petition, there is now a list of teachers - those who signed the petition - that support the principals, as well as a list of those who don't support them, simply because some teachers would not sign the petition, those interviewed said.

The teachers speaking anonymously to the Lebanon Daily News said because the petition was checked so thoroughly by Reist and Wenger, they believe teachers did not start the petition.

Also, the only way the teachers would have known the administrators were up for disciplinary action at that point was if they were told by the administrators, they said.

The teachers said they feel that those who did not sign the petition will be punished in some way by Bentzel, Hassler, Wenger and Reist.

Arlo Miller said the only reason the school board addressed the sex toy incident was because he filed complaints with both the state and federal Departments of Education.

"When I spoke to the Department of Education - Safe Schools, I reported to them what happened. I sent them proof," Miller said. "It seems odd that within 24 hours (of me calling) ... all of a sudden come Monday morning the agenda paper is leaked that they are going to take a vote on these three people."

Several other parents have gone to the state Department of Education regarding the incident and some other issues at the school, according to the teachers. Administrators tossing a sex toy around during school hours is only the tip of the iceberg, they said.

Parent Shannon Miller echoed their statement.

"This is not about just one time playing with a toy, this is about the fact that they do not do their jobs appropriately," she said. "They tell children who come to them about being harassed, 'Stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.' They are sending the message that if you speak out they don't want to hear it. They want to act like everything is good all the time so they want everyone to shut their mouths and move on. There are so many stories like that (from other parents with children in the school district)."

This story is the first of a series of stories from the Lebanon Daily News regarding problems children, parents and teachers have brought up regarding Northern Lebanon School District, including issues that are governed by Pennsylvania law regarding mandatory reporting of some types of incidents.

 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Lebanon Daily News

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