Critics target Lebanon school leader after student suspension

The Lebanon school board listens as a resident questions the leadership of Superintendent Todd Yohey. STAFF/LAWRENCE BUDD
The Lebanon school board listens as a resident questions the leadership of Superintendent Todd Yohey. STAFF/LAWRENCE BUDD

Superintendent says one adult protester refused to leave school grounds, causing safety issue.

The handling of a protest involving Bible verses and the Lebanon High School’s Gay Straight Alliance has drawn criticism from some people, including calls to sever ties with the schools superintendent.

Resident Michael Cope this week urged the Lebanon Board of Education not to renew Superintendent Todd Yohey’s contract.

“Is this what we want for the next three years?” said Cope, one of about a dozen people at the meeting in response to the handling of the protests.

The controversy started after student Gabby Helsinger, in a March 8 Facebook video posted by her mother, said she received a one-day, in-school suspension after posting Bible verses in hallways in response to banners posted by the Gay Straight Alliance in the school.

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Yohey said Helsinger was suspended for defacing authorized materials, not for posting scripture.

“The student was disciplined for a clear violation of our code of conduct,” Yohey said last week. “And, we have a student code of conduct policy about targeting student groups.”

His contract was not on the meeting agenda, and there has been no reaction from the school board.

At the board meeting, activist Lori Viars handed out copies of a letter to the board from her father, Darryl Blair, echoing some of Cope’s concerns.

“He’s got to go,” Viars said before the meeting, charging Yohey’s decisions fail to reflect the community’s values.

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She is vice president of Warren County Right to Life and chair of Warren County Republican Party’s central committee.

Lebanon Councilman Mark Messer, the vice mayor and brother of a man charged with trespassing during a March 13 protest in the student lot at the high school, sat silently through the board meeting.

After the meeting, Messer acknowledged his anger over the charge against his brother, but declined to comment, while awaiting a pretrial date in Lebanon Municipal Court.

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Brian Messer, 32, of Lebanon, is scheduled to return on April 8 to the local court — held in the same room where his brother presides over city council meetings in the mayor's absence.

According to his citation, Brian Messer “knowingly remained on the property (Lebanon High School) after being asked repeatedly to leave at the request of the superintendent.”

His lawyer declined to comment. Police declined to release reports other than the citation and a run sheet from the incident. The court file was unavailable for review.

Criminal trespassing is a minor misdemeanor.

In a statement, Yohey said: “On Wednesday of last week during student dismissal, I received a telephone call that an adult male was standing outside of our student exit interacting with students and holding a sign. I immediately contacted our SRO (School Resource Officer) and asked him to investigate.

“I arrived on the scene prior to our SRO, introduced myself and informed the gentleman that he would have to leave or move to the public easement area on the front lawn of the high school. He was asked to leave several times prior to our SRO arriving.”

Yohey said Brian Messer also refused police who asked him to leave.

“Student safety is a top priority for us, and any adult stranger who positions themselves on school property, interacts with students and refuses to leave is going to be questioned and law enforcement contacted,” Yohey’s statement concluded.

While Brian Messer protested in the student parking lot, according to the run sheet, small, off-setting protests were going on at the edge of school property.

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Several students supporting of the Gay Student Alliance waved signs.

“I just want to preach love and acceptance,” senior Helena Flake said.

A man representing a national street preachers group used a bullhorn to urge the students to recognize gay sex as a sin and, along with his 10-year-old daughter, waved signs.

“You’re always going to feel depressed and suicidal,” John Williams yelled across the access road separating the two protests as a reporter interviewed the students. “Unless you repent, you’re not going to be born again.”

Williams, who said he lived in the Monroe area, said leaders of Street Preachers chapters in Los Angeles and Philadephia urged him to protest district’s handling of Helsinger’s response to the Gay Straight Alliance banners.

Viars said she had been trying to bring attention to the district’s response, but reactions by Cope and others were spontaneous.

“There are a lot of pockets of people that are very upset,” she said.

Evangelist Franklin Graham was among those to join the debate in support of Helsinger.

“Gabby is asking the question of why anything mentioning God or Jesus is immediately deemed offensive and removed when other things such as gay pride displays are not. Gabby is right—God is the one who can bring help and healing—and she wanted to share that truth with others. Let’s pray for Gabby as she lets her light shine,” Graham said in a Facebook post on the day of the protest.

On Friday afternoon, Graham’s post had been shared more than 56,000 times.

Lebanon residents questioned Friday were split on the handling of the incident. None called for Yohey’s nonrenewal.

Standing outside the local Walmart, Kevin Roberts expressed support for Helsinger.

“I think that church and God ought to be in the schools, and the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said.

Stephanie Welch said she supported Yohey and his response to the issue.

“I’m a big proponent of the separation church and state,” Welch said, suggesting Helsinger was trying to intimidate the LGBTQ supporters. “I feel the school acted appropriately.”

Molly Koweek contributed to this report.