The Pine-Richland School District was working toward a policy that would protect marginalized students. Then came parent protests and the firing of a popular coach.
By Colin Williams
The Pine-Richland School District occupies a rectangle of rolling hills in northern Allegheny County, part of a fast-growing region of suburbs near where the Pennsylvania Turnpike meets I-79. Like its neighbors, the Hampton Township and North Allegheny school districts, Pine-Richland is highly ranked on sites like Niche, and new homes quickly fill with families.
Settling down in the district doesn’t come cheap, with houses in Pine Township worth a median value north of $417,000 and those in Richland Township worth around $275,000 (the county median is $161,600). Still, the district is sought after by residents who come for the wide variety of academics and extracurriculars the high-achieving Pine-Richland makes available to students.
“Probably why people like me are interested in Pine-Richland is because of the fact that they offer so much,” said Carla Gathers, whose two children attend Pine-Richland schools.
But the model suburban district has been embroiled in culture wars typical of those across the country over the past two years. In Pine-Richland, they were fueled by pandemic debates over masks and hybrid school, a fear that critical race theory was sneaking its way into the schools, the firing of a popular football coach and accusations of a culture of bullying.
The result: a newly-elected conservative school board majority and the nixing of a policy meant to improve diversity and inclusion efforts in the district.
Those changes came at a time when parents, like Gathers, whose family is Black, and some students and parents of color have documented experiences of harassment and racial discrimination in the schools and community. They cite frequent use of the “N” word to target Black students, Asian students referred to as “rice” and harassment of LGBTQ students. They also noted a 2017 incident in which the district tolerated a student attending the high school wearing clothing that bears the design of the Confederate flag. District officials declined to comment on the incident.
Those experiences, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, prompted parents, community members, the school board and administrators to work together to craft a policy, known as Policy 832, which would have provided more support and protection for students of color and prioritized the hiring of a more diverse faculty.
That process seemed to be going well – until it didn’t.
Here’s the story of Policy 832 and how changing values in the community brought an abrupt end to efforts to support diversity and inclusion in one of the area’s most high-achieving and well-resourced school districts.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, school districts nationwide rushed to push out statements affirming the lives of students of color, and Pine-Richland was no exception. However, as Gathers noted, Pine-Richland’s statement seemed to lack real conviction. It included the word “Black” just once in a list of other ethnicities, and much of it was devoted to the district’s mission of serving “every student.”
“When it came out, it was very ‘All Lives Matter, everyone faces adversity,’” Gathers said. “Tree of Life happened, and a statement went out that was obviously very supportive to Jewish students, and then ours was kind of a slap in the face.”
Gathers’ children are part of a small minority in Pine-Richland, where just shy of 88% of the students are white and 2% are Black. Both Pine and Richland townships have grown gradually more diverse as the percentage of white residents dropped from 97% in 2000 to 90% in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The area has leaned Republican over the years, and all but one of its precincts voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Voter registrations show there are roughly five Republicans for every three Democrats in Pine and four for every three in Richland. Parents interviewed reported Trump 2024 banners popping up in addition to Gadsden flags and other symbols of rightwing discontent. They also point to a lawn sign that reads: “MAKE MY DAY .45 CAL.,” posted at a home near Hance Elementary School in Richland.
Black parents, white allies and others stirred by the surging Black Lives Matter movement quickly gathered virtually in 2020 to discuss their feelings about the statement. The group eventually coalesced into the Pine Richland Anti-Racist Parent Coalition, which began lobbying the administration for a proactive antiracism stance.
“A Huge Issue for My Children”
Parents and students of color interviewed expressed that Policy 832 has been needed for a while. The 11 parents interviewed for this article gave specific examples of racial slurs, bullying or homophobia directed at or overheard by their children while attending a Pine-Richland school in recent years.
Sammy Beuse, a 14-year-old biracial student at Pine-Richland Middle School, reported: “There’s a lot of slur usage. Last year, someone called me the N-word. This year, someone also called me the N-word. Someone made a joke about my dad” (Sammy’s father is Black). His tone is matter-of-fact. “There’s also jokes that people say about Black people in our community. It’s pretty desensitized.”
Alyssa Gerlack has three biracial children who are in middle school and high school in Pine-Richland. Gerlack is white. Her children identify as Black.
“The N-word has been a huge issue with my children.” Gerlack said, adding she has heard references to “those nasty Blacks.” Gerlack said it took her children’s experiences for her to notice subtle signs of racism in the district.
“You feel like Bambi’s mom in the middle of an open field, like I’m out in a beautiful open field ignorantly thinking I’m safe and then BAM – racist micro-aggressions,” Gerlack said. “Not that I think I’m going to be shot with an actual gun, but more in the sense that my family and I are not in the safe space I thought I was.”
Lovern Hayes-Brown, whose family is Black, said her son, who will enter fourth grade this fall, was teased during swimming lessons for his darker skin. He said older kids laughed at him and said his skin was “wrong.” She found him at swim class “shivering with his shirt on.” Hayes-Brown said: “I collected my thoughts and tried to affirm there was nothing wrong with him, that his skin was beautiful.”
Other parents, on and off the record, detailed incidents of racism, homophobia and othering behavior. Jennifer Beuse, Sammy’s mother, shared several social media posts from local Facebook groups containing hateful speech. In one, a local parent asked, “can anyone tell me when White History Month is?” In another post, a resident called systemic racism a “myth.”
Alison Duncan, whose family is white, said she has heard about racist incidents including students calling a peer of Chinese heritage “rice.” In addition, Duncan said her son “overheard a group of boys say that they were glad more Black students weren’t in the district… and that Hitler should have killed all the Jews.”
Russell Patterson is a Black Pine-Richland parent and school administrator in Pittsburgh Public Schools who ran for Pine-Richland’s school board during the 2021 election cycle. Patterson said these incidents haven’t kept his children from their academic pursuits.
Patterson said “98% of their experience has been good.” It’s not so much the individual instances of racism that bother his family. “If you’re talking about a scale of one to 10, it’s the constant twos, threes and fours that wear you down.” Patterson says the district has swiftly handled any incidents involving his children.
In an emailed statement from its now-former spokesperson Rachel Hathhorn, the district’s administration said it doesn’t tolerate any form of harassment.
“In the past three years, we have developed a positive school-wide behavior system known as the RAMS Way to set proactive standards for behavior and culture,” Hathhorn wrote. “RAMS is an acronym for Respectful, Accountable, Motivated and Safe. We have staff teams at all six schools who lead this work. Students are engaged in the program and recognized for positive behaviors.”
The district declined to address specific incidents and said it “strive[s] to create a culture free of derogatory comments in all areas of race, gender and religion.”
The district began to address these issues directly in the summer of 2020, with the board passing an anti-racism resolution that July. District administration followed by releasing a new statement in October and pledging to work with the Anti-Racism Coalition. In the latter half of 2020, board members and administrators took up the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s template for an educational equity policy, “Policy 832: Educational Equity,” and began adjusting the language with input from the newly formed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council (DEILC), which included parents like Gathers and Patterson, school board members, district faculty and student leaders.
Meanwhile, students and alumni circulated an open letter with testimony through the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, collecting over 500 signatures in the process. The hope was to improve the climate for students in marginalized groups.
Policy 832’s broad outlines remained consistent during this early phase. It called for the district to implement an “educational equity audit” that would periodically benchmark equity by disaggregating student data by “race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English learner status and disability whenever possible.” (This eventually became a sticking point when the new board majority was later elected.)
The policy further stipulated the creation of an Educational Equity Action Plan, an annual update from the Superintendent on educational equity, examination of hiring practices and the requirement that “an equity lens shall be embedded in all professional development.”
School director Matt Mehalik says the DEILC launched in October 2020 and met regularly over the next 20 months. It included four board members, community members, administrators and school staff.
School director Peter Lyons, who was then board president, was supportive of the policy. “Input from families, including the Pine Richland Anti-Racist Parent Coalition, was an important part of this process,” Lyons said.
By November 2021, the DEILC and the school board had removed language such as “culturally proficient,” drilled down on the specifics of the equity audit and added a clause that would provide for “periodic guidance… from professionals outside of Pine-Richland” to the action plan requirements.
But the impending election would soon prove to have major consequences for Policy 832 and equity efforts in the district.
“A Really, Really Hard Year in PR for Everybody”
Spring 2021 brought protests from groups of parents and students who wanted an end to the hybrid schedule and resumption of full-time, in-person classes. John Cory, a white parent in Pine-Richland, helped organize demonstrations against masking and hybrid schooling. It marked his first venture into district politics. Cory said he was deeply concerned about the effect of the lack of socializing on students’ mental health. He believed “there was more danger being home than actually catching COVID in school. I just thought we should’ve been given an option.” He got involved in the 2021 school board election as treasurer of PR Kids First (PRKF), a slate of four conservative candidates. Cory is also vice president of the Touchdown Club, Pine-Richland’s football booster organization.
PR Kids First formed a unified front, with Christina Brussalis, Joe Cassidy, Lisa Hillman and Amy Terchick all campaigning under the banner on a platform that called for in-person schooling five days a week and no masks. The PRKF group also explicitly campaigned on a promise for greater transparency.
Terchick said she was motivated to run by the district’s handling of COVID. As she began knocking on doors during her campaign, she said she found many parents who shared her frustrations. “Not only was there [a] delay to return to full in-person school, many activities and social opportunities could have taken place with some creativity and willingness,” she said. Terchick said the district wouldn’t listen to her or other parents’ suggestions of lifting the mask mandate or returning to five-day in-person schooling.
Then came a seemingly unrelated development in April 2021 – one that would feed into the primary election in a big way. School administrators announced they would not be renewing the contract of popular football head coach Eric Kasperowicz. The firing captured the attention of local media and upset Cory and other parents, who turned out to demonstrate against the school board and administration.
“It was all anyone was talking about,” Hayes-Brown said.
Gathers added: “That’s where they [PRKF] grabbed all their momentum. He was a beloved figure, and the rest is history.”
PRKF candidates turned out to support Kasperowicz, and some parents say PRKF became a proxy for those hoping Kasperowicz would be re-hired. Kasperowicz sued, but has since dropped the lawsuit. In April 2022 he took the head coaching position in the neighboring Mars Area School District.
In the midst of this tense atmosphere, the board renewed Superintendent Brian Miller’s contract in July 2021 for a term lasting through 2027. PRKF alleged the board violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Laws by not being transparent about the topic of the executive session in which Miller’s contract was discussed. The district denied any impropriety.
At this point, Patterson decided to run for school board, hoping to call attention to the issues facing families like his and show, as he said, “We’re here.” He aligned himself with the incumbents but quickly realized they faced tough, organized opposition. “It was a well-oiled machine,” he said.
PRKF was also well-funded. Back to School PA, a PAC dedicated to pushing for a return to in-person instruction, had lavished the PRKF candidates with $10,000 from Bucks County venture capitalist Paul Martino. Martino’s support poured gasoline on Bucks County’s local elections and created more competitive environments in districts across the state. With Back to School PA funds, PRKF was able to launch a signs and mail campaign.
“The money allowed us to get more info out,” Cory said of the PAC’s contributions. “Their idea of what they, meaning Back to School PA, wanted, is exactly why we [PRKF] got together in the first place. Taking that money was pretty easy for us.”
A last catalyst for election-season vitriol was a PR graduate’s allegation that the district failed to protect her and properly respond when she was sexually assaulted by a classmate in 2019. The graduate claimed the assault followed a long period of racial and ethnic intimidation. Her father launched Protect Our Students in Pine-Richland Now (PROSPR Now) to push for change on the school board, and a further wave of demonstrations followed.
Bubbling beneath the surface of the public unrest was dissatisfaction with the evolving equity policy, Policy 832. Yard signs sprouted throughout the district urging residents to “Stop Critical Race Theory in Our Schools” by voting Republican on November 2. CRT, as it is now generally abbreviated, was an obscure part of law-school curricula before becoming a frequent conservative talking point and has been hotly debated in local school districts nationwide in recent years.
The parents interviewed for this article remember the election season as a brutal one.
Even Cory, who helped the PRKF candidates win their races last November, said that “last year was a really, really hard year in PR for everybody.”
Lyons agreed: “This election cycle was marked by an unusually high level of personal attacks and political vitriol. Individual board members and administrators were targeted in a way that we’ve not seen before in this community.”
Meetings took on a different tone after the board’s composition changed in December. Parents who were concerned about Policy 832 met with or emailed the newly-elected directors in hopes of swaying their support. Board meetings, once mostly procedural affairs, were suddenly full of contentious discussion around masks, vaccines and critical race theory, with discussions breaking down into crosstalk and open hostility among board members.
A month before the new board majority took their seats, sitting school director Marc Casciani was writing in opposition to social justice on a blog he edits as part of his work as a private consultant with a Christian focus.
“Social justice is divisive,” he wrote on November 14, 2021. “It should be rejected not because it demands justice for those who have been unjustly treated, but because it poses a threat to republican self-government by corroding patriotic ties and demanding special treatment rather than equality under the law.” Casciani goes on to say it is time to move the conversation from social justice to Biblical justice.
Still, Jennifer Beuse hoped to collaborate with the new conservative majority. She organized diversity, equity and inclusion events such as bringing in an expert on implicit bias. “It was excellently done, really eye-opening and powerful. We personally invited all the school board members to attend,” she said. Only the board members who had already supported Policy 832 came.
“They [the conservative board members] would say, ‘we support diversity, but we don’t want CRT in our schools. It was concerning,” says Hayes-Brown.
Others, like Gerlack, say there seems to be reluctance around disaggregating data by categories such as race and gender even though both the state and U.S. departments of education report data in such a format. “What are they so afraid of?” Gerlack wondered. “I truly don’t think that people know that schools are collecting data all the time.”
In the context of Policy 832, Casciani, DiTullio and the new board members had a particular sticking point: the word “equity.” The Policy 832 template defined it as “fair treatment, access, and elimination of barriers.” In the education world, equity is defined as providing each child the resources they need to be successful. It’s accomplished by ending inequitable practices, examining biases and creating inclusive environments.
During the heated April 18 board meeting, board members debated varying definitions of “equity” for 90 minutes with emotions running high. At one point, Casciani suggested he was “taking arrows” from other board members with opposing viewpoints, and Meyer called him a “martyr.”
As the hour grew late, consensus seemed within reach – the board agreed at last to append “educational” to each instance of “equity” within the policy. This seemed to be an uneasy compromise a slim majority of the board would support, including Terchick and Casciani. Casiani, said adding “educational” got him “close” to supporting Policy 832.
In the draft version from April 26, 2022, “equity” is only ever present with “educational” in front of it, including when abbreviated as “DEEI.” The policy’s name had also been amended in this version and was now called “Policy 832: Every Student,” reflecting Pine-Richland’s mission statement, which calls for “focus on learning for every student every day.”
Terchick explained some of her discomfort around the word equity in part by noting that “there have been school systems around the country who have, in the name of equity, made some radical changes to their education programs.” (Some districts nationwide have deliberated changes to a grading system some prominent scholars say is unfair).
Brussalis, Cassidy and Hillman did not respond to multiple individual requests for comment around their decision-making process during work on Policy 832. Casciani and DiTullio declined to comment.
“There’s a general concern that these people aren’t interested in deliberation, consensus-making or making decisions based on facts, but rather they have some issues and principles they feel very strongly about for whatever reason, and it doesn’t matter if those reasons are right or wrong,” says Chris Bonneau, a district parent and political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Concerned parents got a further jolt when Lyons was denied a reappointment to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s board of directors. Lyons had previously served on the board and hoped to be nominated to run for it again, but the majority of the Pine-Richland board voted against his nomination. Candidates for the AIU board must first be nominated by their home district boards.
In response to this, several parents submitted Right-to-Know requests to the district seeking communications through various channels including email, messaging platforms, social media and texts among board members Casciani, DiTullo, Brussalis, Cassidy, Hillman and Terchick from last fall to date concerning such topics as CRT, race, bias, diversity, equity, inclusion and race.
In initial responses to the RTKs, emails indicated Lyons had been vociferous in advocating for DEI, which left DiTullio “beyond frustrated,” and that the DEI discussions themselves had gotten bogged down.
The emails showed that while DiTullio’s dissatisfaction with the process is clear, Casciani tried to strike a conciliatory tone.“I’m really glad we can now devote more time and energy to DEI, which clearly needs our attention. It has been, and will continue to be, an emotional topic,” he writes. “I feel equipped for the battle and confident we’ll be able to influence the outcome in a positive way for ALL students, including white students.”
Parents in favor of Policy 832 were horrified at the reference to “white students.” Parent Mike Barber, whose family is white, described himself as “confused and baffled” by this choice of words. The policy “was good for white students, and I’m confused why they needed to separate ‘white students’ as if there aren’t LGBTQ and other marginalized students.”
“I Knew Where This Was Going”
After so many changes, Policy 832 would have to be reviewed again before the school board could consider its adoption.
“The new board came in, and basically such significant changes were made that it was considered a new read,” said board member Carla Meyer, who supported the policy and has since spoken at meetings in support.
Meanwhile, “Policy 832: Every Student” had gone from including 16 definitions that would guide the work to seven. Gone were “cultural proficiency,” “culturally responsive,” “equity lens,” “gender,” “implicit bias,” “social justice” and others. “Equity” had become “educational equity,” next to which was noted, “Educational Equity at Pine-Richland School District does not mean a guarantee of equal outcomes.” It was a change several parents felt willing to live with if it meant the policy would survive in some form.
Despite all of the work and revisions, when Policy 832 came up for a first read during the next board meeting on May 2, Brussalis, Casciani, Cassidy, DiTullio, Hillman and Terchick unceremoniously voted not to review the bill, which essentially killed it. The district’s remaining nondiscrimination policy concerning marginalized groups, Policy 103, mainly pertains to Title IX and the school’s discipline code and dates back to 2009.
“I knew where this was going,” Patterson said. “I wasn’t sitting there with my mouth hanging open. I think it’s clear where they were headed.”
Other parents were baffled when the policy was shut down. “I didn’t even know there was going to be a vote, so it was surprising when there was no discussion,” Hayes-Brown said.
Gathers said she was not surprised the policy didn’t advance. I’m more surprised that it came that quick,” Gathers said. “It was like, ‘Nope! Next item.’”
Board members Lyons, Mehalik and Meyer who voted in favor of the policy expressed varying reactions to the outcome.
“It was surprising since many of the new board members had expressed support for our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts during their campaign. I don’t think they were completely straightforward with voters at that time,” Lyons said.
Meyers said: “It was contentious the whole way, I won’t deny that, but it felt like a lot of work and compromise had gone into it only for them to vote ‘no.’”
Mehalik said simply: “I voted for the policy and still believe the policy has merit.”
Reaction was swift. A flood of parents spoke out angrily at the May 16 meeting. Brittany Kindersmith said board members who voted down 832 “seem to hold beliefs that are at odds with their pledge to put every student first every day in this district.” Barber and other parents said they felt deceived by the swift decision.
As for the future of equity work in Pine-Richland, Hathhorn, responding on behalf of the administration, wrote after the May vote: “The policy discussion was just one aspect of strategic work in this area. Discussion of next steps – related to policy and strategy – will continue at upcoming board meetings.”
Terchick said she “fully supports” a diversity and inclusion policy. She also hopes for anti-bullying programs, a school climate audit, analysis of subgroups and other initiatives to improve the district’s climate for marginalized students.
However, if the tone of the June 6 board meeting is any indicator, there’s still a lot of daylight between factions. After about an hour of business as usual, including a procedural vote on renovating elementary school bathrooms, DEEI came up and the mood in the room shifted. Board members who had spoken up in a chorus of praise for the new high school principal suddenly shifted into interrupting one another and reiterating their previous stances.
Brussalis said she “couldn’t move past that (equity) word,” while DiTullio said “there was consensus on D and I, but not ‘equity.’” Members were too far apart during the meeting to even agree on whether or not to revisit any equity-centered policy, with Brussalis declaring that “elections have consequences,” Mehalik accusing her of “steamrolling” and Terchick saying, “if you want to harp on and attack, we’ll sit here and go nowhere.”
District Superintendent Miller seemed ready to shelve the idea for the time being, saying, “It may be that a D and I policy doesn’t need to happen now.” The board eventually shifted its focus to the upcoming PSBA legislative session, having effectively agreed to disagree.
“This Community Is Evolving”
“It’s hard to know where the district is headed,” Hayes-Brown said. She’s been personally reaching out to board members and her neighbors and is paying closer attention to the political process. “I hope more community members start to pay attention.”
Some parents involved in the process remain skeptical there’s a path forward with the current board. Other parents are more motivated than ever.
Patterson is optimistic about the future. “This community is evolving, and people’s new homes are being built here every day. This work does not die with Policy 832,” he said. However, Patterson cautioned that “being at war is not helping our children or our district.”
Despite Policy 832’s demise, Gathers said she hopes the positive momentum from the past two years can be used to move things forward in the future.
“It’s the right thing to do for students of color and all students that might have needs,” she said, “but also because it’s good for all students.”
Sammy Beuse is disappointed by the scrapping of 832 but hopeful that change is possible. “It would’ve been helpful for a lot of kids, for Black and white kids,” he said. “Going forward, it’s going to be important to stay resilient.”
Colin Williams is director of The Incline. This collaboration was made possible through support from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.