Pennsylvania board’s cancellation of gay actor’s school visit ill-advised, education leaders say

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MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania school board’s cancellation of an upcoming appearance by actor and children’s book author Maulik Pancholy was ill-advised and sends a hurtful message, especially to the LGBTQ+ community, education officials said.

A member of Cumberland Valley School District’s board cited concerns about what he described as Pancholy’s activism and “lifestyle” before the board voted unanimously Monday to cancel his appearance at a May 22 assembly at the Mountain View Middle School. Pancholy, who is gay, was scheduled to speak against bullying.

Besides their concerns about Pancholy, some board members also noted the district’s policy about not hosting overtly political events, news outlets reported. The policy was enacted after the district was criticized for hosting a rally by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for president.

District Superintendent Mark Blanchard and nine other senior leaders — including assistant superintendents and district-level directors of technology, curriculum, legal affairs, human resources, student services and special education — sent a letter to the board, faculty and staff on Thursday asserting that Pancholy’s speech should have been allowed. Pancholy’s representatives shared a copy of the letter with The Associated Press.

The education officials said they were not given “a real opportunity” to answer questions or provide guidance about the event, which they said was aimed at reinforcing the importance of treating all people equally.

The administrators added that the school board’s decision had “significant ramifications for our school community, especially for our students and staff who are members of the LGBTQ+ community.” They also noted that the actor’s sexual identity was cited as a factor in the decision, meaning “Mr. Pancholy’s personhood was reduced to a single aspect, and his ability to communicate a message of anti-bullying and hate was discredited.”

The Associated Press sent emails to individual school board members seeking comment Friday.

Pancholy, 48, is an award-winning actor, including for his roles on the television shows “30 Rock” and “Weeds,” and as the voice of Baljeet in the Disney animated series, “Phineas & Ferb.” He also has written children’s books and in 2014 was named by then-President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, where he co-founded a campaign to combat AAPI bullying.

Pancholy’s appearance was scheduled by the school’s leadership team, which each year selects an author to present a “unique educational experience for students,” according to the district.

The school board’s vote to cancel Pancholy’s appearance also sparked criticism from several parents, students and community members, who called the decision “homophobic.” Some have started online petitions urging that Pancholy’s appearance be reinstated.

In a statement posted on social media this week, Pancholy said his school visits are meant “to let all young people know that they’re seen.”

“To let them know that they matter.”

He also said that one of the reasons he became an author was because as a child he never saw himself represented in stories.

“That’s the power of books. They build empathy,” Pancholy wrote. “I wonder why a school board is so afraid of that?”

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