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March 27, 2013

McCort parents, alumni group organizes

JOHNSTOWN — Supporters of suspended Bishop McCort High School principal Ken Salem have formally organized as they continue to push for more information about the shake-up.

Salem was placed on suspension March 1.

Although reasons for the suspension have not been made public, the school is conducting an internal investigation following accusations that the late Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker molested numerous students throughout the 1990s when he worked as an athletic trainer at McCort. Baker committed suicide on Jan. 26.

“This group of parents and alumni are very interested smoothing over the issues related to Brother Baker and in helping the faculty at the school and the students at the school get through this with as little impact on their education as possible,” said Rod Eckenrod, vice president of the newly incorporated Friends and Family of Bishop McCort High School.

The group filed articles of incorporation this week and will be pursing nonprofit status for tax purposes, said Tim Burns, the Ebensburg attorney representing the group.

By organizing, the group gains legal standing and unifies the school’s supporters, he said.

“We will be a voice for the alumni and the donors in light of recent actions by the school,” Burns said. “We are one entity. It is not a bunch of chiefs running around.”

“The mission of this group is to work with the board of directors, administration and the student body to promote, preserve and expand the rich tradition of Bishop McCort High School,” the group’s website says.

The organization grew out of a hastily called rally three days after word of Salem’s suspension spread through news outlets and social media sites. About 400 people met at the Richland Township fire hall on March 4 to form an action plan.

Even before the formal documents were prepared, organizers met privately with the school’s board of directors and Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, Eckenrod said.

“I think the tough issue for the board is the internal investigation is continuing,” Eckenrod said. “There is little they could tell us with the legalities. They were open to the point that they could be, we felt. We intend to follow up with that.” 

The board did not say how long the investigation is expected to continue, Eckenrod said.

“We were pleased with the job Ken Salem was doing and we’d like to see him continue as principal,” Eckenrod said.

Although the new group’s primary focus is acting as a watchdog on the board, leaders expect the long-term role to become an alumni organization supporting the school through fundraising and volunteerism.

Board Chairman Mark Pasquerilla did not respond to requests for comment. Board spokesman Matt Beynon emailed a statement from the board.

"The Board does not comment publicly on private meetings, but is committed to keeping all members of the Bishop McCort Family  – both past and present – updated as possible under the framework of the litigation environment and the attendant investigation in which the School is currently involved,” the statement said.

“The Board is excited about the future that lies ahead for Bishop McCort, and urges the entire Bishop McCort Family to keep the victims of Brother Baker in their thoughts and prayers during this Holy Season.”

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