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Beaver Area Superintendent Faces Protests Over Principal's Suspension

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Beaver Area High School

The superintendent of the Beaver Area School District paused before the start of Monday’s school board meeting and told a packed auditorium that she is gay.

Carrie Rowe said a group of community members recently “outed” her for their own gain. Rowe said she has never spoken about her sexual orientation in the 19 years she’s worked for the district.

“I am reportedly persecuting Christians because I am gay and therefore unable to be objective,” she said in an email to 90.5 WESA.

It’s been a complicated two years that lead Rowe to publicly address her personal life. What she refers to as a “vocal minority” claim Rowe has displayed a pattern of discriminatory decision-making. Some community members have said the latest decision to place the Beaver Area High School principal on paid administrative leave reflects a pattern of discrimination based on religion.

Luke Berardelli organized a rally Monday night to support the principal, Steve Wellendorf, who has been on paid administrative leave since August. Wellendorf is associated with a Christian youth group called Young Life.

The district has not specified why Wellendorf is on leave.

Beradelli's group was met with a gathering of students Monday night holding signs in support of superintendent Rowe.

Berardelli has children who attend district schools and is a 1999 graduate. He said he doesn’t want the board to renew Rowe’s contract when it expires at the end of the school year because of what he calls a pattern of discrimination against religious people, not because of her sexuality. 

As evidence of bias, he pointed to an incident that made national headlines in 2017. Then-student Moriah Bridges was asked to revise her graduation speech which she’d written in the form of a prayer, after it was reviewed by administrators.

Rowe said because graduation is a state function, a prayer was not permissible.

“I think it took the community members a while to understand that this wasn’t a personal desire from me or any board member, but rather this was a well-established law. It would be unfounded for that to be any part of this issue,” Rowe said.

In November 2017, Rowe sent Bridges a letter explaining that the Beaver Area School Board had revised a policy regarding student expression. Rowe said the district no longer review students' graduation speeches and apologized for a lack of clarity about the policy. 

“The expressions of student speakers will not be attributable to the District and will not be restricted because of religious, anti-religious, or non-religious content," the letter stated. "Since becoming Superintendent last year, I’ve been reviewing all District policies, and I wish I had gotten to this one sooner."

Berardelli said that situation showed that Rowe made a unilateral and wrong decision.

“So we have that as a history and fast forward to where we are with Steve (the principal). I’m nervous we’re going to get this one wrong again," he said. "And a lot of us in this community, a lot of us, he’s been here for five years, know Steve and know he’s a good man and a strong man of integrity and character. And we don’t want to see anything else happen to good people in our district."

On Monday, Rowe declined to comment on why principal Wellendorf was placed on leave because it is an ongoing personnel matter.

“Which is often something that is difficult for the public to understand. There is often a tendency to search for something tangible that might have caused the change in status. I understand that, but out of respect for Mr. Wellendorf’s privacy and due to legal issues we are not at liberty to discuss the details,” she said.

She expects the board will make a decision on whether to reinstate Wellendorf at next month’s board meeting.

Berardelli acknowledged that he hasn’t had confirmation as to why the principal was placed on leave.

“I believe I know (why)," he said. "I think I know enough."

Berardelli said his call for Rowe’s contract to expire was, “never about any LGBT issues.”

“I’m shocked at how quickly people turned the tide and changed the narrative to something that is completely irrelevant to the facts and the matter at hand,” he said.

He said that claim started with an article featured in the Beavercountian.com. An article posted Saturday said Berardelli claimed Rowe targeted people involved with the Christian youth group Young Life. The article also notes that "some individuals are targeting Rowe because of her sexual orientation.”  

Rowe said she became aware of claims that her sexuality impeeded her objectivity through that article. 

"People who are following the movement have decided that this is relevant," she said. 

Rowe said she brought up her sexuality at the meeting to directly address LGBT students. 

"They need to know first and foremost this is not what we stand for. We don't discriminate," she said. "And they need to hear from me that it doesn't matter who they are, who they love, where or if they worship, their racial background, their disability status, we have a safe space and I will make no place for hate."

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.