By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
Author’s Note: Grace Under Pressure is an ongoing series of posts honoring everyday people who courageously make positive differences in their own lives and consequently in the lives of others. It is my own personal affirmation that unexpected heroes live among us and that their service is quiet but unshakable proof that virtue really is its own reward – and ours, too.
A Pittsburgh area teen thought he was doing the right thing to end his bullying but his audio recording of the abuse only resulted in criminal charges for wiretapping. Sophomore Christian Stanfield had endured a miserable school year at the hands of two classmates who tripped, shoved and even attempted to burn the 15-year-old with a cigarette lighter. Pleas for help to his teacher went unheeded for the teenager who suffers from comprehension delay disorder ( a brain disorder involving slower processing speed for information than is normal) ADHD, and an anxiety disorder. So last month Christian decided to get the proof he needed to make school officials listen. Sitting in his math class, he activated his Ipad as his tormentors launched another verbal fusillade. “”They were talking about pulling his pants down, and some things I can’t repeat, and laughing and cutting up like it was a big joke, it was not a joke, not at all funny,” said Christian’s mother, Shea Love, who heard the recording at her kitchen table that afternoon.
Ms Love was being generous with her words. The actual recording allegedly contained sexual references and demeaning language. With a teacher helping Christian with a math problem one of his bullys is overheard on the tape saying, ““You should pull his pants down!” Another student replies, “No, man. Imagine how bad that (c**t) smells! No one wants to smell that (t**t).” Then, a loud noise is heard—the sound of book being slammed down next to Love’s son after a student feigned hitting him in the head with it. The teacher screams. Laughter follows.
Ms. Love and her son transcribed the audio and then called the principal’s office the following morning to demand some action amid deflections that the school’s hands were tied because the teen had no proof of his abuse. (I guess the teacher missed what was happening directly in front of her.) Principal Scott Milburn told Shea he was going to do something and Shea sent her son to school for the expected remediation. Instead of anger at the perpetrators after confirmation of their bullying, Principal Milburn summoned South Fayette Township Police Lieutenant Robert Kurta to the school to interrogate her son in the presence of the associate principal and the dean of students. With his mother now at work, the four male authority figures threatened to charge the special needs teen with felony wiretap unless he erased the recording. Bullied again, Christian complied and was then told he would be receiving a break – only a misdemeanor charge.
In a rambling decision District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet found Christian guilty of disorderly conduct .“Normally, if there is — I certainly have a big problem with any kind of bullying at school. But normally, you know, I would expect a parent would let the school know about it, because it’s not tolerated. I know that, and that you guys [school administrators] would handle that, you know. To go to this extreme, you know, it was the only alternative or something like that, but you weren’t made aware of that and that was kind of what I was curious about. Because it’s not tolerated, but you need to go through — let the school handle it. And I know from experience with South Fayette School that, you know, it always is. And if there is a problem and it continues, then it is usually brought in front of me.” Huh?
Christian and his lawyer had had quite enough of this Pennsylvania justice and appealed the conviction.
Attorney Jonathan Steele took the case saying what happened here was no crime at all and contending Christian attempts to fight back did not trigger the anti-wiretapping laws. In a remark that should top every school discipline handbook, Steele added, “The lesson is zero tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean zero common sense.” After discussions with another reasonable man, District Attorney Stephen Zappala, the charges were dismissed at the appeal hearing.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for Zappala, said Judge Robert Gallo signed the order Thursday to withdraw the citation against the teen.”No one in our office who is authorized to give advice on wiretap issues or school conduct issues was ever contacted in this matter. We have made multiple attempts to contact the officer who wrote the citation and (the) results have been unsuccessful,” Manko said in a written statement. “We do not believe this behavior rises to the level of a citation.”
Christian has returned to school but no discipline has yet been handed down to his tormentors or the look-the-other-way teacher. No evidence exists you see. School Principal Milburn remains at his seat but his chair is getting hotter. Lawyer Steele promises that the case is not over and the hubbub has caught the ear of more enlightened government officials. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights has been contacted and an investigation is in the offing.
South Fayette Township School District Superintendent Bille Rondinelli declined to comment. That’s about the only thing the school district has got right in this case.
Kudos and thanks to my brother-in-law Mark Daley of Uniontown, PA for bringing this story to my attention.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor