PARKERSBURG – A controversy concerning wrestling T-shirts and a Bible verse led to some heated comments Tuesday evening and more than a few fingers pointing in blame.
Two weeks ago Superintendent Pat Law ordered a Bible verse painted over in the Parkersburg South High School gymnasium and removed from a PSHS wrestling team web site. The verse has been used as the team’s slogan for years, but the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation recently objected to the verse’s use on team T-shirts, saying it was brought to the group’s attention by a local complaint.
Dozens of people attended Tuesday’s Wood County Board of Education meeting wearing navy blue versions of the South wrestling shirt. About a half-dozen addressed the board during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Also attending was David Foggin, a Parkersburg South teacher who has been on administrative leave for more than a month due to an ongoing investigation by Wood County Schools. Foggin was suspended for four days in mid-March after he made a post on his Facebook page seemingly making fun of a student organization for straight, gay and lesbian students, the PSHS Gay-Straight Alliance.
Foggin’s suspension was not listed as a discussion topic or action item at Tuesday’s meeting, but his name came up in some comments by the public. Foggin did not address the board.
Law on Tuesday presented a brief timeline on the T-shirt controversy but said he believed the situation had been resolved. Law said after receiving the letter he sought legal counsel and was told “it was very clearly a violation of the separation of church and state and we had to make some changes.”
Law said Wood County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Wharton, who represents the school board, and local attorney Bill Merriman, who was contacted by the parents of a South wrestler, reviewed the case and looked at options. Law said the school has restarted a student Christian athletes organization and students are allowed to wear the T-shirts, but they cannot be part of the team’s official uniform.
Board member Jim Fox argued there was no issue with the T-shirts and the wrestlers never should have been asked to not wear them.
“These shirts were purchased by the young men of the wrestling team. They weren’t purchased with taxpayer money,” he said. “I think these kids have every right to wear these shirts.”
Board member John Marlow further distanced the school board from the debate.
“This school board never discussed this issue,” he said. “The decisions that were made came through (Law’s) office and not this school board.”
Board President Tim Yeater and members Tad Wilson and Lawrence Hasbargen simply praised South and the community.
Law said the T-shirts were purchased through the school’s booster group. As such, he said, the shirts are considered to be purchased by the school.
“The booster organization is technically part of the school,” Law said. “It’s a thin line there, but it makes a difference.”
Law said that did not prevent the students from wearing the shirts, but utilizing the booster organization to purchase them did potentially violate the law.
About a half dozen people in attendance addressed the board during public comments, most chastising the board and Law for allowing outside groups to dictate what goes on in local schools.
At times the comments became heated. Ron Sams, the father of several Wood County Schools students, demanded the board allow a plaque with the Bible verse to be placed in the school. He also blasted the board and the administration for “an alarming lack of leadership” and severe issues with internal and external communication.
Sams said if the issue involved Parkersburg High School’s Big Red mascot, the board would fight the issues, but instead “you aren’t going to fight over a Bible verse. Shame on you.”
Yeater asked Sams to wrap up his comments, but Sams repeatedly refused to give up the floor, berating the board and accusing those associated with the PSHS Gay-Straight Alliance of lodging the complaint with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Sams said the complaint came shortly after Foggin was suspended for his online remarks about the GSA.
“If it looks like a skunk and smells like a skunk, it’s a skunk,” Sams said.
Waifford Wolfe, a Parkersburg High graduate and parent, said the board had failed to protect students.
“The board members tonight are sitting here pointing the finger at you, Mr. Law, but the blame falls on everyone,” Wolfe said. “You get elected, we pay you, you work for us. You guys are going to be asking for a levy to do all these projects you want to do, but where is the standing up for our kids?”
Wolfe pointed to Foggin’s suspension and several other high-profile personnel issues which made headlines during the past school year, saying each of those was “a black eye” for the board and its members. Wolfe said the board owed the community more.
“I would think you’d want to work with these people out here,” he said, pointing to those wearing the wrestling T-shirt, “not work against them.”
Parent Sara Lambiotte was the last to speak, and said money for the T-shirts never went through the wrestling boosters as asserted by Law. She also said some teachers at the school were telling students they were not allowed to wear the shirt, something also contrary to what Law has said.