SDPC trustee under fire for alleged comments

COUNTY — Pickens County school board trustee Ben Trotter is at the center of a controversy regarding comments he is accused of making about special needs students during a teacher’s meeting at Liberty Middle School last month.
Several parents and a representative from the Pickens County Association of School Principals (PCASP) addressed Trotter’s alleged comments during the public forum of Monday night’s SDPC board meeting and urged the board and school district to investigate the issue.
Rumors began to circulate immediately following the February 28 meeting; however an article published in The (Seneca) Journal brought the issue to public attention. Trotter has publicly denied making the alleged comments.
“Recent alleged comments published in The Journal, attributed to board member Mr. Ben Trotter are disturbing to us and we request this matter be fully investigated by the chairman of the board,” said Ken Weichel, the principal of Clemson Elementary School and a former president of the PCASP. “In the article it describes Mr. Trotter as citing the presence of ‘retards’ as the cause for the low graduation rate of our students.”
The alleged comments that the PCASP would like fully investigated occurred when Trotter was answering a number of questions related to budget issues.
In his address to the board, Weichel explained that “allegedly when speaking about why we are in this budget mess, Mr. Trotter allegedly said ‘I will give you an example of wasted money over at Liberty High School. They have retarded students sitting in wheelchairs playing with cars, just taking up space.’
“If those indeed were the comments made by a member of the Pickens County school board of education about our students, we would like those derogatory comments investigated and addressed,” he said. “School board members are to act ethically and communicate effectively.”
George Case, a parent of a special needs child in Pickens County, addressed board members with the hope that the board would consider the matter serious enough to warrant an investigation.
“I understand that allegedly there were some statements made by board member Ben Trotter and I find this very disturbing to say the least,” he said. “I’m asking the board to fully investigate this matter and find out what was said — whatever it takes to find out exactly what was said there. All students have the right to equitable educational opportunities.”
Brett Turner, another parent of a special needs student at LHS, said, “People need to understand the magnitude of this statement that was allegedly said by one of our school board members. ‘I can tell you where we’re wasting a lot of money right over there at Liberty High. We have retarded children doing nothing all day but playing with cars. They’re just taking up space.’ This has got to be one of the most ignorant, callous remarks I have heard in my life. If there is any truth to this statement, it cannot and will not be tolerated. I’m not going to allow my child or any other child’s rights to be violated.”
Russell Dalton, sharing the same concerns as other parents who spoke, reminded the public that the former chief of police in Pickens lost his job for making “similarly ignorant statements.” Dalton said that if an investigation proved Trotter did in fact make the statements that the board should remove him from his position.
Following the public forum, board chair Alex Saitta explained that per board procedures, board members are not allowed to respond to the public.
“I don’t like the rules, but only Dr. Hunt and myself can respond. As for what I should do or shouldn’t do, the chairman doesn’t have the authority to investigate anything,” said Saitta. “I can’t remove someone from the school board, because we’re all equal. There has to have been some kind of ethical violation. I’m talking about ethics under the law, not what you call ethics.”
During the point in the meeting when board members are allotted time to make public comments, Trotter said that he met with Superintendent Henry Hunt and Saitta, during which time he asked for an investigation. He said his request for an investigation was denied.
“I talked to the principal who started this and I told him I will take a lie detector test if he will,” Trotter said. “These two men (Hunt and Saitta) will tell you I asked for an investigation because I want this cleared up just like you do. I don’t expect you all people to believe me, but I will take a lie detector test if those two principals take one too.”
Trotter maintains that he asked Hunt for an investigation and Hunt refused on the basis that there is no way to determine exactly what was said.
“Mr. Trotter did come and speak to me and to Mr. Saitta,” Hunt said. “I said in that conference that often it is hard to determine what one person said versus the other. Trotter said he wanted an investigation. I said we’ll have an investigation and report the results. At that point in time, Trotter said he didn’t want to have an investigation. I talked to a number of people and I have no reason to feel that principals are making incorrect statements. It is difficult to understand sometimes what is said in a group. I do know there were some comments said about disabled students.”
“The meeting did not go down like Dr. Hunt said. That was a lie,” said Trotter. “You want to start it, we will. I’ll have my attorney in touch with the school tomorrow, and we’ll start the investigation. I sure didn’t say that about a child.”
Trotter denies ever making the alleged remarks about special needs students. Saitta has said the board has no authority to initiate an investigation or ask another board member to resign. As of the adjournment of Monday night’s meeting, the matter remained unresolved.