Metro Weekly

School Board Cancels ’30 Rock’ Star’s Anti-Bullying Talk

A Pennsylvania school district canceled a speech that actor Maulik Pancholy was slated to give at a middle school's anti-bullying assembly.

Maulik Pancholy
Maulik Pancholy — Photo: Todd Franson

A Pennsylvania school board canceled an appearance by Maulik Pancholy at a local middle school’s anti-bullying assembly due to concerns over his “lifestyle.”

The Cumberland Valley School District school board voted unanimously to cancel the gay actor’s scheduled May 22 appearance at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, a town of 9,000 people in the state’s center, just 10 miles outside Harrisburg.

Pancholy, who played Jonathan on the hit TV show 30 Rock, Sanjay in Weeds, and voiced the character of Baljeet for Disney’s Phineas & Ferb, is also an author of novels for young adults, including The Best at It, the story of a gay Indian-American boy and his experience dealing with bullying in a small Midwestern town, and Nikhil Out Loud, about a group of eighth-grade theater kids rising up against homophobia in their community.

The conservative school board balked at the idea that Pancholy might address the middle schoolers and bring up topics like homosexuality or politically-tinged issues, which could violate a district policy prohibiting “political” events.

“He labels himself as an activist who is proud of his lifestyle, and I don’t think that should be imposed on our students,” School Board Member Bud Shaffner said at an evening meeting on April 15.

Kelly Potteiger, a newly-elected board member who is also a member of the right-wing, anti-LGBTQ group Moms for Liberty, fretted that Pancholy might mention his books, which deal with anti-LGBTQ bullying themes, or his own experience with bullying, potentially even advocating for ideas like “empathy and inclusion” — which right-wingers typically deem as contrary to conservative values.

“[I]t’s not discriminating against his lifestyle, that’s his choice, but it’s him speaking about it,” Potteiger sad. “He did say that’s not the topic [of his speech], but that’s what his books are about.”

Shaffner later told The New York Times that his remarks had been misconstrued and that the “lifestyle” he objected to had to do with Pancholy’s description of himself on his website as an “activist” working on social justice causes.

“The fact that he is a self-proclaimed political activist is what we object to,” Shaffner said.

But some local residents aren’t buying the school board’s justification. 

Trisha Comstock, who has two sons enrolled in the school district, started an online petition calling for the anti-bullying assembly to be reinstated. The petition, which has gained more than 2,000 signatures, asserts that Pancholy was disinvited from speaking because he is gay.

“Being LGBTQ+ isn’t a dirty little secret to protect our students from,” the petition reads. “To have someone with Maulik’s life experiences would have been inspirational for our students. It is important that we teach our children about diversity and acceptance from an early age….

“The cancellation of this assembly sends a harmful message to our students — that being different is something to be ashamed of or hidden away. We must challenge this narrative by reinstating the assembly with Maulik Pancholy.”

“There is no political agenda,” Comstock told the Times. “He is not trying to pass policies or change minds or anything like that. [The school board members] cloaked it as ‘We want to keep politics out of school’ when they clearly knew it had nothing to do with politics.”

Comstock noted that if the policy were applied more broadly, other groups, such as “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” could be considered activists.

“Would we ban them from coming and talking to our members?” she asked.

Comstock added that the board’s decision was not representative of the community, which is why community members were “outraged” by the cancellation.

It still remains unclear how the event came to be planned and whether the board’s actions reflected the views of administrators at Mountain View Middle School. 

Cumberland Valley School District spokesperson Tracy Panzer told that Pancholy’s visit was not originally on the school board’s agenda for Monday’s meeting. Still, one member proposed rescinding the invite, with the whole board agreeing. 

Brooke Ryerson, a 16-year-old who previously attended Mountain View Middle School and who is a member of the LGBTQ community, plans to attend the school board’s next meeting on May 6 with her mother, where both will express their disappointment with the cancellation. 

“It was going to be an assembly about empathy and anti-bullying,” she told “But that doesn’t matter to the board. They want to silence us in any way they can.”

Tony Conte, another former student, shared an open letter to Shaffner on Facebook, recounting his experiences as a closeted gay teen, including being ostracized for being different, and even contemplating suicide. He noted that a boy he had befriended eventually hung himself due to a lack of acceptance and bullying.

“I think that if I had heard from diverse voices like [Pancholy’s] in an auditorium setting telling me that it was okay to be different maybe my middle and high school experience could have been different,” Conte wrote. “A presentation of this sort could have saved a life, like the life of my friend.”

Conte also questioned the school board’s rationale for canceling the anti-bullying assembly. “I can only surmise that you’d said what you said because you don’t approve of the fact that Mr. Pancholy is gay,” he wrote.

“I am writing you for my three young children,” he added. “I don’t know who these little kiddos will turn out to be, who their friends will be, what their interests will be, but I do know that if parents like me don’t stand up and kindly request a reconsideration of poor decisions like the one that was made to cancel Mr. Pancholy’s presentation, it will only hurt the children who desperately need to hear the positive message of inclusion to feel a little less alone in this world.”

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