Monty School Board Votes Unanimously to Temporarily Suspend Its HiTOPS Contract Pending a Review
By Barbara A. Preston | Posted September 28, 2023
After listening to school children politely request a day off for Diwali, which was granted at the Montgomery School Board meeting on September 26, the board moved on to a more adult conversation.
Board Member Marty Carlson moved that the Montgomery School Board end its relationship with HiTOPS, a Princeton-based nonprofit that provides sex education and LGTBQ+ programs for adolescents.
Another crowded school board meeting in Montgomery Township.
In Montgomery, HiTOPS provides in-service training to teachers, according to Montgomery School District Superintendent Mary E. McLoughlin. It is for staff development only. They do not interact directly with Montgomery students, or write curriculum.
A discussion amongst board members ensued regarding a $33,000 contract that the Montgomery School District has with HiTOPS that ends the end of this year, according to Board Attorney Stephen Fogarty.
Carlson said he based his motion on a recent video by Project Veritas, an ultra Conservative activist group known to use secretly-recorded videos to discredit and embarrass news outlets, organizations, and politicians.
HiTOPS Executive Director Lisa Shelby said in a press release on September 15 that Project Veritas heavily edited a covert video it made of staff members at HiTOPS, an institution that has been around for more than 36 years.
Project Veritas is a “known hate group that uses deceptive, unethical practices to spread misinformation,” she said. “Project Veritas’ methods of manipulation are well-documented, and they have targeted numerous organizations and individuals across the country over many years. They have been widely discredited by reputable journalists and have lost multiple legal battles.”
Montgomery School Board Member Cookie Franco-Herman had mentioned during the meeting that “Project Veritas is a questionable organization, and we should not rely on it in making our decisions as school board members.”
Board Member Carlson, after listening to his peers on the board, amended his motion. He changed the wording from “ending” the contract with HiTOPS to “suspending” the contract until the next school board meeting in order to further discuss it.
"We're not talking about banning gays or anything like that," Carlson said. "We’re talking about looking at a company that may or may not have been acting disintegrity (sic).”
Board Member Christina Harris told the audience that, “Every decision we make is made with great thought. So let’s hold the contract to make sure we are doing the right thing for our district.”
Monty School Board HiTOPS Discussion to Resume on October 17
The Montgomery school board voted unanimously, 9-0, to suspend the contract until its next meeting on Tuesday, October 17.
"My vote to temporarily suspend HiTOPS has nothing to do with the work HiTOPS is doing," Harris said. "It is because I want to respect every community member. What I hear is some parents have a lot of questions, while some parents are comfortable. I just want to be able to respect everybody and hear what everyone’s saying. Let’s take a couple weeks as a board and regroup … and make sure everyone is comfortable."
Meanwhile, Planet Princeton is reporting that HiTOPS staff members have had to reach out to police after they received threats.
Audience members at the Montgomery school board meeting spoke both in favor and against HiTOPS during the public comment session. Montgomery High School Senior Sophia Rab said that when she sees educational services like Hi-TOPS being questioned for "quite frivolous and insanely unimaginably under-thought reasoning—it is a disgraceful reflection of the educational values and principles we are tying to instill in our children."
“I have the ability as a 17-year-old to go on social media and to look at a video and [recognize] fake news, or what is click bait," Rab said. "If I can make that educated and informed decision, then adults in my community should be able to do it too—especially my leaders. So I am asking the board of education to put that emphasis on finding the truth in information.”
Rab is also the student representative to the board. She said she made her comments as a student, and not as a board member.
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Francine Pfeffer, a parent who lives in Skillman, said that Project Veritas fabricates and disseminates disinformation to the intellectually gullible. People should know the difference between misinformation and disinformation, she said.
Although both words refer to types of wrong or false information, only disinformation is wrong on purpose, she said. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information—getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead—intentionally misstating the facts. Pfeffer said she was trained as a librarian, and that this was an important lesson she learned in college.
According to the American Psychological Association, the spread of misinformation and disinformation “has affected our ability to improve public health, address climate change, maintain a stable democracy, and more. By providing valuable insight into how and why we are likely to believe misinformation and disinformation, psychological science can inform how we protect ourselves against its ill effects.”
Marc Gettinger, left, the husband of Montgomery School Board Candidate Deatte Gettinger, gets into a dispute with MHS Principal Heather Pino-Beattie after he made a disparaging remark to a student in the room. The meeting was halted while a police officer escorted him away from the podium.
Montgomery resident and parent Marc Gettinger spoke about a few issues. He demanded to know what books are being read to his child at school. He said he has been trying to find out for five months.
"As far as HiTOPS, do we have some allegiance to them?" Gettinger asked. "There's no other organization that can give us the services that they have?"
"As far as due diligence, we'd like to know what due diligence was done. And I'm going to concede the ground that you did do your due diligence," he said. "Does that mean they are not corrupt now? Power has corrupted people. So, for HiTOPS not to be corrupted—that's not a big deal, okay. We need to move away from them. That's the reality of things."
Gettinger returned to topic of books. "What books are in those libraries that are not accounted for?" he asked.
"That's a very specific question. Is that specific enough for you young lady?” he said in an accusatory tone specifically to an MHS student in the room. He continued to disrupt the meeting.
“You are out of order sir,” the board attorney said.
“You may not speak to a student that way,” a board member said.
At this point, Principal Heather Pino walked up and escorted the student out of the room for the student’s protection.
A member of the audience told Gettinger that he should “grow up.” Gettinger responded, "Come meet me somewhere else."
“Sir, please,” Principal Pino said, trying to get him to calm down.
A police officer escorted Gettinger out of the room.
The meeting was temporarily adjourned until order could be restored. The meeting then resumed.
Superintendent McLoughlin said at the conclusion of the meeting that her commitment to providing a safe haven for all students has not wavered based on the conversations at the board meeting.
"I want to address the students here to let them know that my commitment to provide safe schools for everyone—and that you feel valued and respected—has not wavered— not from anything that was said at this meeting. This goes for the staff as well."