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Pennsylvania School Board Reinstates Gay Author’s Speech Amid Backlash

Less than two weeks after a Pennsylvania school board unanimously voted to cancel a gay author’s anti-bullying speech at a middle school, the board voted Wednesday night to reverse its decision and reinstate the event amid pressure from parents, students and administrators.

The 5-to-4 vote by the Cumberland Valley School District’s board came in front of scores of community members who packed a high school auditorium and, for several hours, chastised the board for having canceled the event featuring the actor and author Maulik Pancholy over what they said were homophobic concerns.

Bud Shaffner, a board member who had come under fire for introducing the motion at the April 15 meeting to cancel the speech, apologized for his comments about Mr. Pancholy’s “lifestyle.” He later introduced the motion to reinstate the speech and voted for it.

“I will accept the blame because of the insensitive word I spoke on April 15,” he said at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. “I fully understand the interpretation of my poor word choice.”

Many community members who spoke during the public comment period of Wednesday’s meeting rejected the contention by some board members that Mr. Pancholy’s speech had been canceled over concerns about what they called his “political activism.”

“To claim that Maulik Pancholy is a political activist and use that as a justification to cancel his event is an excuse that the public sees through,” one person told the board.

Mr. Pauncholy, who acted on “30 Rock” and voiced Baljeet in the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb,” has written children’s books that include gay characters who confront bullying and discrimination and is often a speaker at school events. He had been scheduled to speak at an assembly on May 22 at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, a community of about 9,000 people roughly 100 miles west of Philadelphia.

It was unclear Wednesday night if Mr. Pancholy had committed to speak at the reinstated event.

Two board members who voted on Wednesday against reinstating the event, Matthew Barrick and Kelly Potteiger, pointed to a link to an antiracism “tool kit” that includes guidance on staging protests and other ways to combat discrimination found on the website of the anti-bullying organization that Mr. Pancholy helped found and cited it as evidence of his political activism.

“If you cannot yet understand why I personally consider Maulik Pancholy a political activist, we can simply agree to disagree,” Mr. Barrick said at the meeting.

Mr. Barrick also said that reinstating the assembly would not give parents who objected to the speaker the choice to opt out. But another board member clarified that district policy already allowed that option.

While the overwhelming majority of the dozens of people who spoke during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting supported the reinstatement of the event, a handful of people who spoke backed the cancellation and agreed with the characterization of the issue as political.

Mark Blanchard, the Cumberland Valley School District’s superintendent, explained at the meeting that administrators at the middle school bring young adult authors to speak every year and first contacted Mr. Pancholy about giving a speech in 2019.

He added that the administration had not had an opportunity to provide input to the board since the motion to cancel had not been on the April 15 agenda.

Some who spoke on Wednesday night during the public comment period said they felt ashamed of the move to cancel the event and were disappointed that the board’s actions were beginning to resemble those of other school boards across the country that have been enveloped in struggles over book bans and sex education.

Some former and current students at the meeting who identified themselves as members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community said that Mr. Pancholy’s speech would have helped them feel more accepted at school.

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