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Bentonville School Board member accused of bullying student

by Dave Perozek | May 21, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.

BENTONVILLE -- A parent has accused School Board member Rebecca Powers of cyberbullying for comments attributed to her earlier this month on social media.

Paula Mantel, mother of Victoria Mantel, brought up the matter during the public comment period at Monday's board meeting. Mantel said she sent a letter six days earlier requesting Powers apologize to Victoria for comments Mantel said Powers wrote about her daughter. Victoria hadn't received an apology as of Monday, Mantel said.

Board Election

Rebecca Powers has served on the Bentonville School Board since October 2012. Her Zone 1 seat on the board is the only Bentonville board seat up for election this year. Zone 1 covers the northwest portion of the School District, including parts of Centerton and Bella Vista.

Source: Staff Report

Powers didn't respond to Mantel's comments Monday, though board members typically don't respond to any comments from the public during meetings. Powers also didn't return one email message and two phone messages left for her this week seeking comment.

The issue stems from the ongoing debate on whether the board should add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected statuses under the School District's Equal Employment Opportunity policy.

Victoria Mantel, a Bentonville High School student, participated in a demonstration May 8 outside the high school where she and other students rallied in support of changing the policy. Powers opposes such a change.

Amy Gillespie, a Bella Vista resident who worked with the students, said she took a picture of a Facebook page on which the comment about the rally is attributed to Rebecca Sue Powers. The picture came from the "Protect OUR Children BPS" Facebook page, which opposes changes to the policy. The post was in response to another post attributed to the wife of Brent Leas, another board member.

"The young lady that is heading this up is an atheist," the post attributed to Powers reads, according to the picture. "She is also rude, and disrespectful. I had the displeasure of watching her at the Mary Beth Tinker event at BHS. She was reprimanded for her behavior that day by school officials."

Mary Beth Tinker, a free-speech advocate connected to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, addressed Bentonville High students during an assembly April 8. Mantel said her daughter never was reprimanded for her behavior.

"While the statement Miss Powers made is completely untrue and shocking in and of itself, the fact that a School Board member in this district would cyberbully a student in a social media post violates the School Board's code of conduct and ethics policies," Mantel said.

Gillespie co-administers the Facebook site BPS Citizens for Equality. Gretchen Bellamy, a lawyer in charge of diversity and inclusion for Walmart, is the other administrator.

Gillespie said she took the screen shot of the Facebook post May 7. The next day the message had been removed, but Gillespie and Bellamy sent a letter to School Board members and Superintendent Michael Poore to alert them to it.

"The comment was phrased so that the student was easily identifiable and contained personal private details about the student including her religious beliefs and prior disciplinary actions," according to the letter. "BHS staff told us this post may have even been inaccurate, identifying the wrong student with these details."

If the post did come from a district officials, it could put the district at risk for litigation, Gillespie and Bellamy said in an email to the newspaper. They said the post may have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by disclosing a student's official disciplinary record.

"We ask that the board fully investigate the incident according to its procedures and for swift and harsh disciplinary action be taken against Ms. Powers up to and including her removal from the board should she be found in violation," according to the letter to the board and Poore.

Bellamy said a complaint is "likely to be filed" in response to the post, but declined to provide details.

It's unclear where such a complaint would be filed. The Arkansas Department of Education doesn't deal with complaints against school board members, said Kimberly Friedman, department spokesman. The Arkansas School Boards Association has no power to remove or discipline board members, said Kristen Garner, a staff attorney for the association.

School board members have no power over other board members, nor is there any method for the public to recall a board member, Garner said.

Marshall Ney, a lawyer who represents the Bentonville School Board and School District, said in an email Wednesday he was aware of the complaints against Powers, but, "I have not viewed it as a District issue for which I would be engaged."

Board President Travis Riggs said Wednesday he intended to discuss the issue at Monday's board meeting, but because of the large number of people commenting that night about the proposed policy change, he felt it wasn't the appropriate time. He said he will address it at the board's June 1 meeting, but didn't want to share his thoughts until then.

Riggs warned fellow board members during their meeting May 4 to be careful when using social media. Personal views expressed online could affect the public's perception of how the board as a whole thinks, he said.

"It's hard for community members to separate those things. That's all I wanted the board to understand," Riggs said. "I think we need to be careful about our actions."

Powers, along with her children, had signed up in advance of Monday's board meeting to address the board during the public comment period. She forfeited that chance, however, when her turn and the turn of her four children came up.

"My children will not be here due to bullying, threats and intimidation made against us," Powers said at the time.

NW News on 05/21/2015

Print Headline: School Board member accused of bullying student


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