Monessen kids explore 'Shades of Grey' terms

| Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, 1:25 a.m.

The Monessen School District is investigating a purported incident in which middle school students received from a school employee a word search puzzle containing sexually explicit terms related to the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

But district officials declined to discuss the matter at length, saying they had first been informed about it Monday.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, parent James Carter wanted to know why his son was recently handed a word search sheet with terms related to the novel and motion picture.

The book explores explicitly erotic activity involving such sexual practices as bondage and discipline. The word search reportedly was downloaded from a website, copied and distributed to an unknown number of students.

Carter said he went to Monessen Middle/High School on Tuesday seeking answers from Principal Eric Manko and Dean of Students Don Madzey but was refused information because he insisted on taping the exchange.

“I wanted to record the conversation because a lot of parents had questions about it, and I was denied that,” Carter told the board. “So I guess I come here today to find out the timeline and how it happened.”

Board President Donna Fantauzzi called the situation “a personnel and student matter.”

“As a school board, we don't have the right to speak about it in public,” Fantauzzi told Carter. “As a parent, I can understand your concern, and I can assure you we value your comments and we will handle it the best we can.”

Carter did not return a phone call Tuesday evening seeking further comment. After the meeting, Fantauzzi referred all questions to solicitor John Toohey.

Toohey said it was “too preliminary” to reveal details, such as who passed out the word search, how many students received it or if discipline is anticipated.

Toohey said that as of Tuesday evening, the board and administration was “hamstrung” from providing particulars.

“The district learned of this yesterday and is trying to gather all the facts so it can be treated fairly and expeditiously,” Toohey said.

When asked what he thought of the controversial terms contained in the puzzle, Toohey said that was part of the investigation.

“There's not enough known at this point to be even able to give a personal reaction,” Toohey said.

“We have to take a professional approach to this … and give everyone an opportunity to respond.”

Facebook pages lit up Tuesday expressing outrage about the incident, but several attempts to reach the posters for comment were unsuccessful. At least one parent posted a copy of the puzzle.

Toohey said district officials cannot control public comment.

“The district – and the school board in particular – cannot really respond because of the laws to protect children and personnel here,” Toohey said.

“Boards are ill advised to have the issue discussed in the media until they get their arms around all the facts.”

Toohey gave a tepid denial to purported accusations by parents that the district was attempting to sweep the issue under the rug.

“My only comment to that is to reiterate that the district learned of this (Monday) and we are less than 24 hours from that point,” Toohey said. “I'm involved in it, the superintendent is involved in it and the investigation is ongoing.”

Superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak confirmed she is leading the investigation, but said she could not comment further.

Biz boss hired

In other action, the board hired Jeffery Fester as business manager at a salary of $68,000. Fester, who serves in the same capacity in the South Allegheny School District, will replace longtime business manager Linda Hall, who will retire next month.

Fester will begin work March 16.

Hall said she hopes to have the tentative 2015-2016 budget halfway completed by the time Fester takes over.

The board accepted a $53,600 bid from Whitby Inc. of Uniontown to replace a water heater and repair a leak.

The board tabled the motion at last month's meeting so director of maintenance John Desak could compare costs.

During her report, Spazak implored students and parents to take advantage of the district's lunch program.

Spazak said all students are entitled to free breakfast and lunch.

Students participating in after-school activities are eligible for additional food.

The district began the program this year, but needs more participation to continue, she said.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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