Angry parents showing up at school board meetings is a common occurrence in the Delaware Valley these days. But Monday night’s meeting of the Norristown Area School Board was different.
Parents weren’t upset about curriculum or mask policies. They wanted to know why board president Shae Ashe still had his job in the wake of inappropriate social media posts to a 17-year-old female student.
“This young girl felt she had nowhere to go, no one to talk to, because he was so powerful,” said resident and parent Buck Jones. “Every student that’s in this school, if you didn’t address anything else, I thought you should have addressed that. Let every student know in your district that they can go somewhere.” Jones said it was time for an emergency session to remove Ashe from the school board.
“We need our kids to feel safe coming to our schools and right now parents feel uncomfortable sending their kids to school where Shae Ashe is a leader and can groom their kids. Shae works in a lot of places that have young kids, Montgomery County OIC, Norristown Project,” he said.
The scandal began when Delaware Valley Journal published screen captures of Ashe’s communications with the teen girl, including repeated requests that they meet and comments like, “If only you were 18.” Ashe, who is married and a father, was suspended from his job in state Sen. Amanda Capelletti’s office after the story was published.
Rudolph Clarke, the district solicitor, said the board could not take action against an elected official.
“This board does not have that authority,” Clarke said. “What the district is doing, from the superintendent to all of the board members, is things they have been guided by legal counsel to do so they are in the best interests of the Norristown Area School District.”
Ashe was not in attendance Monday night.
“This situation is not business as usual and should not be treated as such,” said Jones. “As we listen to the solicitor explain about the taxes and the importance of it…we should have those same types of things with the Ashe situation. He should have told people what to do if you are affected.”
Lisa Licwinko-Engleman, a parent who is running for a seat on the school board, said that having Ashe remain on the school board means the district is “complicit” in his violation of its policies. They include a prohibition for adults “dating, courting or entering into or attempting to form a romantic relationship with any student enrolled in the district,” she said. Adults must also not accept requests to be students’ friends on social media, according to district rules.
“Mr. Rivera, as vice president, you need to step in, step up, and make Mr. Ashe step down,” she said. “It is your job as elected officials to protect our children. If it had been any of your daughters on the receiving end of these messages, how would you feel? These girls’ lives have been changed and their innocence gone forever because of Mr. Ashe…We as parents and taxpayers demand Mr. Ashe step down immediately.”
Also, Licwinko-Engleman said Ashe voted to approve tutoring programs paid for by the district for students to attend programs at OIC, where his family members are employed, “which is a conflict of interest.” She told the board to freeze funds to OIC until an investigation is completed.
Her remarks were applauded.
NASD Superintendent Christopher Dormer read a statement after the residents spoke, saying officials were aware of the allegations against a board member.
“Though we are unable to publicly discuss any specific steps that are being taken, the district wishes to assure our community that we are in full compliance with any applicable laws, policies, and procedures related to such allegations being made against an elected official,” Dormer said. “The administration is in regular communication with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office and is fully cooperating with their investigation into those allegations. As this matter is ongoing, we are unable to make any additional public comments at this time.”
Emmett Madden, a lawyer representing Ashe, issued a statement saying, “We have reason to believe these alleged messages are fraudulent and part of an improper effort to influence the upcoming election. Just as the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office is not rushing to judgment, I urge that neither you nor the voters rush to judgement [sic].”
Maria Mancuso, executive director of the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, said she could not comment on the specific case but “as a community, we need to recognize and confront sexual violence and abuse.”
The school has an “obligation to protect the student. As an organization dedicated to eliminating domestic violence and all forms of abuse, the Women’s Center of Montgomery County offers education programs for students and staff within our school districts. We encourage staff to become trained in recognizing signs of unhealthy relationships among students, and to interact in a healthy way with them as responsible adults” and the district will “use this as an opportunity to address relationships and implement programs offered by community-based resources.”
“And we want to be sure that Dana and her daughter and others similarly victimized feel supported and encouraged to reach out for services,” she said.
Norristown parent Anna DeSanto told the board she is concerned about her child’s safety and is upset the district’s leadership has remained silent.
“You can take a stance for these kids,” said DeSanto. “That’s what we put you here for. The people in this room, your constituents, put you here to do a job for our children.”