Metro Weekly

School Board Reverses Maulik Pancholy Cancellation

A Pennsylvania school board reinstated an anti-bullying assembly where actor Maulik Pancholy plans to speak to middle school students.

Maulik Pancholy — Photo: Todd Franson

A Pennsylvania school board reversed the cancellation of an anti-bullying assembly at a local middle school after being accused of discriminating against the guest speaker, actor and author Maulik Pancholy, who is gay.

The Cumberland Valley School District school board voted 5 to 4 to allow the assembly at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to proceed as originally scheduled.

Students whose parents object to the presentation’s content will be allowed to opt out of the assembly.

Pancholy, nationally known for his role as Jonathan on NBC’s hit TV show 30 Rock, is the author of two award-winning novels for young adults.

The Best at It is the story of a gay Indian-American boy and his experience dealing with bullying in a small Midwestern town. Nikhil Out Loud is about a group of eighth-grade theater kids rising up against homophobia in their community.

The board canceled the assembly on April 15, citing concerns about Pancholy, who describes himself as an “activist” on his website. They said it could violate a district policy prohibiting “political” events. Others objected to Pancholy’s “lifestyle,” expressing fear that he might raise issues related to homosexuality, citing the content of his novels.       

The conservative-leaning board, which represents the suburbs around Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, received an unexpected level of blowback from the community. Parents of middle school-aged children even accused board members of discriminating against LGBTQ people.

Supporters of Pancholy started a petition calling for the reinstatement of the assembly. The petition garnered 9,751 signatures.

At the most recent school board meeting last week — which lasted nearly six hours due to the controversy — dozens of speakers weighed in on the assembly, with the majority criticizing the cancellation.

“Last week’s actions sent a message that it’s okay to bully and discriminate based on one’s sexual orientation,” parent Nate Davis told the board. 

Some of the board members who had voted, unanimously, to cancel the assembly earlier this month said that they regretted their decision. They apologized for rushing to cancel before doing sufficient research on Pancholy and what he says is his intended message: that youth who feel like outsiders, regardless of their personal characteristics or background, understand that they are seen and that they matter. 

“I’m sorry our actions on April 15 made some of our students, faculty, and community feel different and not accepted,” Greg Rausch, the board’s president, said in addressing the meeting. “I hope tonight’s meeting will help resolve our differences and bring our district, our community, staff, and especially our students, the ability to move forward and come together as one.”

Bud Schaffner, the board member quoted in media outlets as disapproving of Pancholy’s “lifestyle,” also offered an apology.

“I will accept the blame because of the insensitive word[s] I spoke on April 15. I fully understand the interpretation of my poor word choice,” he said.

Other board members, including Matt Barrick, stood firm and justified the cancellation, arguing that Pancholy’s self-identification as an activist makes his work inherently political.

“Why would we invite someone who considers themself a political activist to come to a talk to our children at our school?” Barrick said.

Mark Blanchard, the superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District, said he believed Pancholy’s activism was better described as “advocacy for what is good and right.”

Pancholy responded to the assembly’s reinstatement on social media, saying he was “grateful to the hundreds of people who showed up and for the outpouring of support from the superintendent, administrators, parents, caregivers, teachers, and community members.”

He was especially moved by current and former students from the district who spoke about the importance of the assembly and shared their personal stories of struggling with bullying or harassment.

“Thank you for sharing your powerful messages of love, inclusion, respect, and belonging,” Pancholy said. It was an honor to listen to each of you. I cannot wait to meet all of you in person.”

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