For the Journal Register News Service
LOWER OXFORD - Three state police cars were parked outside the door of the Oxford Area School District Administration Building with another at the roadside entrance for the July 17 School Board meeting.
The police presence was made at the request of School Board President Joe Scheese. “I was told the entire special ed advocacy community was going to come out,” he said heading into the meeting. “No implied threat just the sheer numbers.”
The issue leading to the situation stemmed from the March suspension and June reinstatement of High School Principal David Madden and the resignation of District Special Education Director Jenny Le Sage when he was returned to work.
Neither the board nor Madden would discuss the underlying issue or the settlement due to non-disclosure clauses in the settlement and privacy issues, but there had been leaks and rumors in the community that connected Madden’s suspension with his handling of an incident involving a special education student and what have been perceived as inappropriate and insensitive comments toward special needs students.
Before the public’s discussion of Madden and special education students, during the principal’s suspension, supporters of Madden turned out in force at an April board meeting to demand he be reinstated.
A part of Madden’s negotiated return to the high school appears to be his removal from interaction with special education students, and a move to make him the athletic director.
A state police officer stood in the shadows of the break room alcove watching the meeting progress. There was a full room of spectators, the crowd exceeding 50, and television news camera crews recording the evening’s events.
Scheese and the other board members sat stone faced and unresponsive when audience members spoke. None of the questions put to them were answered, and Scheese cut off one speaker when she mentioned Maddens name. At one point early on in the public comment, he attempted to adjourn the meeting because the public applause for the speaker was prolonged.
In the face of the uniformed presence there was only one instance where an officer had to move in to direct someone away from the microphone during the public comment session.
Resident Susan Bowers thanked the three board members who did not vote for Madden’s reinstatement and then refused to relinquish the microphone when Scheese said she was no longer recognized for having mentioned Madden by name. “If someone stands up and shuts off the microphone that’s when I’ll shut up,” she said, relinquishing the podium when an officer approached.
Comments came from residents who are parents of special education students and special education advocates from as far as Montgomery County.
Dave Leonard from Oxford was representative of the feeling among parents in the district who are concerned about the impact that Madden’s attitude could have on their children. “I just can’t see at this point how our high school principal can remain an effective leader,” he said.
Madden was present at the meeting and sat silently through the complaints, as well one lone parent’s comment that she has no problems in the district with her special education child.
The board’s conduct and the way the issue has been handled was also a concern for parents. “The whole thing was clouded in secrecy. Nobody knew what happened with the nameless principal,” Ken Hicks of Lincoln University said to the board. “It would be really nice if you guys would step out of the box and address your thoughts – if you could give us a tiny idea of what your thought process is.”
There were several times during the public comment portion of the meeting when speakers predicted the present board members would not be re-elected.
“I would love if someday all of this would come out, but unfortunately in the position I’m in, I can not comment,” Scheese said following the meeting.