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Pennsylvania school board reinstates gay author's anti-bullying speech after public outcry

“My ‘activism’ is to let all young people know that ... they matter,” actor Maulik Pancholy responded. “I wonder why a school board is so afraid of that?”
/ Source: TODAY

After intense backlash, a Pennsylvania school board has reversed its April 15 decision to cancel Maulik Pancholy’s anti-bullying assembly at Mountain View Middle School.

Pancholy — who is openly gay and is known for his acting roles on shows such as "30 Rock" and "Phineas and Ferb" — was disinvited from speaking to students after concerns were raised about his activism and what two board members called his “lifestyle.”

On April 24, after hours of heated debate, the board voted 5-4 to reinstate Pancholy’s appearance. The special meeting was called amid national public outcry.

During the widely attended meeting, which ran for more than five hours, parents and students spoke their opinions about the board’s original decision to cancel Pancholy. 

An eighth grader named Dova introduced themselves as an “openly trans kid.”

“The school board is telling trans kids and LGTBQ students that they do not belong,” Dova told the crowd. 

Christina Whitmer, the mother of a non-binary student, echoed Dova’s message.

“Do we not want our children to discover who they are? The Whitmer family is not going away, and we will not let you ignore the LGBTQ+ community,” Whitmer said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Bud Shaffner, the board member who was first to suggest the anti-bullying assembly be cancelled, apologized for his comments about Pancholy’s “lifestyle.”

“I will accept the blame because of the insensitive word I spoke on April 15,” Shaffner said. “I fully understand the interpretation of my poor word choice.”

Shaffner was one of the board members who voted to reinstate Pancholy's appearance.

Valarie Ryerson, a former Mountain View Middle School parent, tells that the board's reversal meant "everything" to her family. Ryerson's daughter Brooke, who is gay, spoke at the meeting.

"I'm so happy that Brooke and the other brave students who spoke up see that they make a difference and are valuable, needed and loved," Ryerson tells "Our community was united in a way I've never seen here, and I hope the four dissenting board members know that we are not going away."

The Backstory

Pancholy’s scheduled appearance at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, was unanimously cancelled by the district's school board in a public meeting on April 15. 

“If you research this individual, he labels himself as an activist, he is proud of his lifestyle and I don’t think that should be imposed upon our students at any age,” board member Bud Shaffner said at the meeting. 

Pancholy responded on his Instagram on April 18, saying in part:

“When I visit schools, my 'activism’ is to let all young people know that they’re seen. To let them know that they matter. When I talk about the characters in my books feeling 'different,' I’m always surprised by how many young people raise their hands — regardless of their identities and backgrounds — wanting to share about the ways in which they, too, feel different. 

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

Also on April 18, the Cumberland Valley School District's leaders signed a letter expressing their “disappointment” at the school board's vote. The school district leaders are employees, and separate from the elected members of school board.

“While the issue of ‘political activism’ was cited, statements made publicly by individual board members identified Mr. Pancholy's sexual identity as a factor, an identity shared by many members of our school community,” said the letter, signed by Superintendent Mark Blanchard and nine other high-ranking members of the school district administration. “In doing so, Mr. Pancholy's personhood was reduced to a single aspect, and his ability to communicate a message of anti-bullying and hate was discredited.”

Trisha Comstock, a former parent at the school, started a petition to reinstate Pancholy's anti-bullying assembly.

“What happened is homophobic. Anyone can go and watch the meeting,” Comstock tells “This board is close to causing some real harm.”

Why was Maulik Pancholy disinvited?

Board member Kelly Potteiger raised concerns that Pancholy, 50, would discuss his children’s book “The Best at It,” which is about a gay Indian American boy.

“It’s not discriminating against his lifestyle — that’s his choice,” Potteiger said in the meeting. “But it’s him speaking about it.”

Pancholy played the character Jonathan, Alex Baldwin's devoted assistant, in the sitcom “30 Rock," and also voiced the character Baljeet in “Phineas and Ferb."

Pancholy’s presentation on anti-bullying at Mountain View Middle School was canceled by an 8-0 vote. has reached out to Pancholy for comment.

In his Instagram post, Pancholy said, “It’s been incredibly moving to see the outpouring of solidarity, love, and support from the community at Mountain View Middle School ... I hope that every single student at MVMS is receiving that message of support and love. That you know that regardless of who you are, you belong.”

Brooke Ryerson, an LGBTQ high school sophomore, attended Mountain View Middle School. Ryerson and her mom plan to express their disappointment at the next board meeting on May 6. 

“It was going to be an assembly about empathy and anti-bullying,” Ryerson, 16, tells “But that doesn’t matter to the board. They want to silence us in any way they can.”

The “us” that Ryerson is referring to is the gay community. 

“They’re sending that message that they don’t want our identities in the school,” Ryerson says. “I’m lucky that I have such accepting friends and family, but it’s gotta be devastating for the kids who don’t and now feel even more like they’re not wanted somewhere.”

Maulik Pancholy
Maulik Pancholy is an actor and award-winning author.Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images

How the school board decided

According to Pancholy’s website, the award-winning author delivers keynotes on the topic of “diversity and inclusion.” Pancholy is a self-described activist and served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Shaffner tells in a phone interview that he had concerns that Pancholy would “go off script” and talk about politics. 

“Politically motivated discussions belong at home and not in the classroom,” Shaffner says. “A number of board members went to his website and what stuck out to all of us is that he’s a political activist.” 

Cumberland Valley School District spokesperson Tracy Panzer tells that the school principal "works together with staff members to identify award-winning young adult authors to visit with students."

Panzer says that Pancholy’s visit was not on the board’s original agenda.

“However ... one board member motioned to rescind the invitation to this year’s scheduled visit by author Maulik Pancholy,” Panzer says. “Ultimately, the board voted not to allow the visit.”

'This ... could have saved a life.'

Tony Conte, a former Mountain View Middle School student, shared an open letter to Shaffner on Facebook. In the post, Conte reflected on his experience as a closeted gay teen and said that he “considered suicide from time to time.”

“Like a lot of ‘different’ kids, I was teased for reasons I didn’t understand, and I had quite a lot of difficulty building friendships and growing into the healthy mindset that it was okay to be a little different,” Conte wrote.

In high school, Conte said he became friends with another “very different kid.” 

“Before we could become close, before we could confide our challenges in each other, he hung himself,” Conte wrote. 

“I think that if I had heard from diverse voices like (Pancholy's) in an auditorium setting telling me that it was okay to be different, maybe my middle and high school experience could have been different,” he continued. “A presentation of this sort could have saved a life, like the life of my friend.”

According to the The Trevor Project, LGBTQ students at LGBTQ-affirming schools are 30% less likely to be bullied by their peers. Pancholy's work focuses on youth in the AAPI community.

“When I was a kid, I was often made to feel ashamed for just being who I was. I was made to feel ashamed for being Indian. I was made to feel ashamed for being scrawny and little for my age. I was made to feel shame for being gay," Pancholy said in 2015. "And there were times when I was a kid that I actually felt unsafe for being who I was. And there are times as an adult, where I continue to sometimes feel unsafe for being who I am.”