By Jordan Cohen
The school board heard both sides of the dispute over the claim that a bus driver made an ethnic comment to a child.
VIENNA — More than 70 people packed Mathews High School cafeteria Wednesday as the controversy over the reported actions of a school-bus driver continued to rouse emotions in this small district.
The driver, Kathy Kotanichek of Burghill, was suspended for three days in November after she was accused of referring to a student of Lebanese descent on the bus as a terrorist.
The child’s mother, Carol Lynne Sassya, accused Kotanichek of repeated racial insults against her children and wants the board to fire her.
Since then, Kotanichek has been assigned duties in the bus garage and is no longer transporting students. She faces a hearing Wednesday in Girard Municipal Court on criminal charges related to the matter.
Ray Nakley of Youngstown, acting as a spokesman for the Sassya family, called on the board to conduct sensitivity training for its staff.
“There is still a responsibility for the people to understand it is not OK to call kids blanking terrorists when they exit a bus,” Nakley said.
It was Nakley’s second address to the board. He also spoke on the family’s behalf during a board work session in January.
However, a large group of people turned out at Wednesday night’s meeting to support Kotanichek. Many wore handmade yellow signs reading “We support our bus driver.”
“I don’t believe Kathy is a racist,” said their spokeswoman, Terri Tarr of Vienna, before the meeting. “And I would be sensitive to that because I’m part Native American.”
Tarr called for a peaceful solution while praising the embattled bus driver to the board.
“I believe Kathy would lay down her life for my children or your children,” she said.
“What you said is fine in lollipop world, but we live in a society where racism exists,” responded Sassya. “See what [Kotanichek] has done to my children?”
“We can’t do anything about this until this situation is resolved legally,” said Kenneth Wallace, board president.
After the meeting, Superintendent Lee Seiple said he will review the outcome of Kotanichek’s court case and recommend action at that point. He did not comment directly on what he would recommend, but Kotanichek could be fired, if convicted.
Meanwhile, in a surprising move, the board voted to table a resolution closing 90-year-old Neal Middle School at the end of the current school year. The board originally planned to transfer sixth-graders to Baker Elementary and move the seventh and eighth grades into trailers, but those plans have been put on hold.
“There are other options,” Wallace said, adding, “We’ll discuss them in work sessions and make a decision [about closing Neal] at our next board meeting.”