Family implores board not to reappoint Fredonia coach

OBSERVER Photo by Greg Fox Newly installed Fredonia School Superintendent Jeffrey Sortisio recommends the board of education reappoint Carol Zirkle as a cross country coach during Tuesday’s special meeting. The board tabled the reappointment until its next meeting after the Gullo family asked the board to review information related to Zirkle allegedly bullying and stalking their daughter.

Tears streamed down Hannah Gullo’s face Tuesday as she and her family pleaded with the Fredonia Board of Education not to reappoint Carol Zirkle as a cross country coach.

Hannah and her parents, Luke and Courtney, attended the board’s special meeting after finding out the night before that Zirkle’s reappointment was on the agenda. The board ultimately decided to table the reappointment until its next meeting.

“I hope that you review our information, because I just want to be able to move forward because it just keeps going,” Hannah, a basketball player, said emotionally. “So, if we could get a resolution, that would be great.”

Zirkle — who is also a teacher — is being accused by the Gullos of bullying and stalking Hannah during school hours. According to Luke, she once pulled Hannah out of another classroom to yell at her in the hallway while Hannah had a broken foot. It got to the point where the high school principal e-mailed Zirkle telling her to stay away from Hannah during the school day while out of the season, Luke stated.

Luke told the board his family has provided “a great deal of information,” but after he spoke with several board members one on one, he found out that information was not disseminated by Board President Michael Bobseine. The info includes last-minute evidence about something similar happening to another child 12 years ago, though the school never documented it, Luke claimed.

“It’s a very delicate matter because it deals with a child, and the prior administration, although no longer here, made assurances to us how this was going to be handled,” he added. “Both of the prior administration had issues, as well. Everyone who dealt with the situation is in agreement with us. People outside of the situation are the ones who are reinstating this coach.”

Bobseine defended himself by saying he specifically asked for additional information before he sent the Gullos’ info to the rest of the board, but a response never came.

Luke also told the board he knows “the nature of the incident has not been dealt with by the district properly.”

“We were thanked many, many times, and apologized to by the district for the things that happened, over and over and over again, and that it would be handled, and it has not been handled,” he continued. “Just the opposite has happened, and we have remained silent. It has come to this.

“It is troubling to say the least, especially when the incident has been admitted to by the person who did it.”

Luke asked the board to get their information and absorb it before arriving at a decision.

Courtney pointed out they have been complimented, thanked and appreciated for being quiet and dignified. She added her family has been seeking a simple resolution to this matter since January 2016, and they cannot be quiet anymore.

“It is unacceptable to move forward, nor will we for another season — two seasons, since Hannah decided (Monday) to run cross country and loved it and then discovered the situation (Tuesday),” she mentioned. “There has to be a resolution. We have asked for nothing more than that from the beginning and it has been ignored. We did not even get so much as a meeting before the reappointment.”

Alberto Rey and his son, Diego, also spoke to the board, not to condemn Zirkle, but to praise her. Alberto said he has known her for many years, even before he had children running in her program.

“She is not only very knowledgeable about the sport, but she more importantly cares a great deal about the children she works with,” he remarked. “It’s a program like no other program at the school where the students work together more or less as a family, that they come together, everybody runs, everybody supports each other. As a parent, it’s always important to have a strong mentor and role model for our children to follow, and that has been the case with her.”

Diego told the board that while he has been in cross country, he has experienced nothing but love, compassion and a great mentorship from Zirkle.

Before the board entered into a 20-minute executive session to discuss the issue further, newly installed Superintendent Jeffrey Sortisio informed the board his official recommendation is to reappoint Zirkle.

“One of the things that I’ve been working diligently on is sorting through the situation,” he explained. “I will say that my expectations have been outlined very clearly and documented in terms of expectations, and I would do this with any coach or any teacher, expectations in the classroom and expectations on the playing field, and most importantly that all students, student athletes, regardless of ability, need to be treated with dignity and respect at all times.”

Sortisio noted he knows that message has been delivered and he believes that message “has been heard.” He added he has spoken with the school district’s attorney regarding the matter.

Board member Tom Hawk questioned if there was a lack of followup in regard to the district. Sortisio replied in the affirmative.

Zirkle has served as Fredonia’s cross country coach for more than 20 years. She also coaches girls basketball.

The question of Zirkle’s reappointment will be brought before the board once again at the beginning of next Tuesday’s regular meeting at 6 p.m. in the high school library. An executive session will take place in the hour prior to the public meeting.

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