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Monessen School District regrets 'Fifty Shades' snafu

| Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, 12:30 a.m.

The Monessen School District superintendent on Thursday confirmed five middle school students mistakenly received a word search puzzle containing explicit terminology based on the popular erotic novel and film “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The word search included terms ranging from character names to spanking and bondage.

News of the incident has swelled in recent days, reaching national and international news outlets.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak expressed regret about the incident and offered counseling services to the parents, children and staff member involved.

She refused to identify the staff member or say whether that person would be disciplined.

Spazak confirmed that the word search was “mistakenly and unknowingly” placed in a stack of work sheets for the students to complete on Monday.

The puzzle was downloaded and printed from a website featuring trendy word searches.

After the sheets were distributed, some of the students began to snicker, and a staff member immediately collected the sheets, she confirmed.

Spazak said only the five students and staff member were present and that the word search was not distributed to other students or staff members.

One of the students kept a copy of the word search and posted it on social media. That's when the incident exploded across Facebook pages and the story went viral.

Parent James Carter sought answers from the school board during a business meeting Tuesday night about why his son received the puzzle.

Carter claimed he went to the middle/high school Tuesday seeking answers but was turned away because he insisted on recording the conversation.

Board President Donna Fantauzzi responded Tuesday by calling the situation “a personnel and student matter” and referred further questions to district Solicitor John Toohey.

Spazak said she had reached out to Carter since the meeting, but he still insisted on recording the exchange. Several attempts to contact Carter since the meeting have been unsuccessful.

In her release, Spazak said the staff member followed “proper procedures” to inform the administration of the mistake.

During a phone interview Thursday evening, Spazak was adamant that the district was not placing blame on the student and that the staff member made “an honest mistake.”

“You would never want any child to see anything bad,” the superintendent said. “I would hope we could get past this unfortunate situation.”

Spazak said it is unclear whether the staff member will face disciplinary action, but asserted she had full discretion to decide what and when any such action would be taken.

“If you discipline an employee, he or she has the right to due process, and they can have a hearing in front of the (school) board,” Spazak said.

Several school board members, including Fantauzzi, did not respond to requests for comment.

Board Vice President Roberta Bergstedt did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but later wrote in an email published by the Associated Press:

“It was a huge-but-unintentional error and collected from the five students involved as soon as it was realized,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, one copy was taken by a student who then posted it on social media.”

In her written statement, Spazak said the district will take appropriate actions with its staff to ensure such incidents will not occur in the future.

“The district regrets that this inappropriate material was viewed by students and will continue to provide an environment that will serve the best interests of these students in this classroom and all students in the district,” Spazak said.