Cheltenham school board president stepping down amid criticism over graduation speech

CHELTENHAM TWP., Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- The president of the Cheltenham School District Board of Directors is stepping down amid criticism about comments he made during the high school commencement ceremony.

Joel Fishbein shared a story about Frederick Douglass during the graduation earlier this month in Montgomery County, in which he described the abolitionist as having a good life despite being enslaved. The story was from a blog by historian and professor Heather Cox Richardson, which Fishbein said he reads each day.

Fishbein issued an apology in a letter later that day.

"I write to apologize for my words about Frederick Douglass in today's commencement address. I greatly diminished his situation- the fact that he was enslaved and suffered all of the indignities, danger and trauma borne of slavery (himself and for multiple generations)," Fishbein wrote. "Due to his subjugation, Frederick Douglass was not in control of his own destiny."

Fishbein said in attempting to tell Douglass' story, he was trying to encourage the graduates to take risks to create change.

"I hurt many of you on one of the most important days of your lives," his apology said.

Cheltenham School District uploaded an edited version of the graduation to YouTube, omitting the speech.

The edited video begins with this message:

"Please be advised, a section of this video has been removed because it contains material which reflects a white-washed account of the systemic, violent subjugation of generations of African Americans, and denigrates and trivializes the horrors, trials and tribulations of the enslaved as well as and those who were able to escape enslavement."

The district links to an unlisted full version which includes Fishbein's speech, but notes "a section of this video contains an inaccurate account of enslavement in American history."

On Monday, Fishbein, an attorney from Elkins Park, followed up his apology letter with his resignation.

In this second letter, he said to repair the injury he caused to the community, it "requires actions, not just words."

"Giving up leadership of the school board is not an easy decision, but it is an important first step to help our community heal from the hurt I caused at the June 3 high school commencement ceremony," Fishbein said.

He said he was thankful for the administrators, educators, parents, fellow board members and students who showed him that he had "an enormous blind spot in my understanding of the trauma our country's history of slavery and continuing racism has inflicted."

Fishbein said the school board president is the public face of the school district and it would be inappropriate for him to remain in the role after the "particular type of pain" he caused to the community.

"I apologize most of all to the students. I am deeply sorry that my poor choice of subject matter and words inflicted further pain particularly on what should have been their joyous occasion. I am also deeply sorry for causing division and hurt in this community that I love," Fishbein said.

The nonprofit Cheltenham African American Alliance, an organization created for the educational improvement of African American and/or African Diaspora students in Cheltenham School District, met with district administrators in regards to Fishbein's speech.

In a statement, the CAAA said the speech "contained improperly characterized references to historical events involving slavery that were insensitive at best, and wholly out of line for the celebratory nature of the event."

Members of the organization were part of a community discussion last Thursday.

"CAAA cited the majority population of Black students in the school district and how parents expect leaders who are culturally competent to set the agenda for their children's success," the CAAA said.

The nonprofit said it recognized Fishbein's reputation and service on the school board as a "capable and dedicated individual with policies that are aligned with the best interests of students at large," but questioned whether this was the best leadership at such a "pivotal time in the country's reckoning with its history."

"CAAA will be championing and requesting important changes to the environment in which Black students are educated in Cheltenham and expect culturally sensitive, and competent School Board members, teachers and administrators to work along-side us to bring these much-needed improvements to the School District," the statement read.

Fishbein said he did not share his speech with anyone prior to delivering it at the graduation. He said the board will be announcing a new requirement that all graduation speeches be reviewed in advance.

While Fishbein is stepping down as president, he will remain as an active member of the board for the remainder of his term.
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