Board reaction mixed on bench controversy

Published 1:28 pm Monday, October 16, 2017

Members of the Charlotte County School Board agree the controversy surrounding the Colton “Cotton” Osborne memorial bench is unfortunate, but some have different opinions on what should be done.

The bench honoring Osborne was placed just inside the front gate of Bankston Field at Randolph-Henry High School (R-HHS) in March, and among the words inscribed on the memorial is a Bible verse, Philippians 4:13. The presence of the verse located on public school property has been deemed illegal due to the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

This year, the school system has received more requests for memorials to be placed on school property. Charlotte County Public Schools (CCPS) Division Superintendent Dr. Nancy Leonard said that as she consulted with the school board attorney, Craig Wood, to develop policy for processing the new requests, “previous memorials were reviewed as part of that process of developing policy. Our school board attorney advised that the placement of the bench had caused a significant ‘religious establishment’ problem.”

“We’ve got a meeting Tuesday night, and there’s going to be a lot, I’m sure, said about it,” William “Bill” Devin said Thursday. Devin is a school board member representing the Red Oak/Wylliesburg District. “We have a public, open comment period there before the meeting, and you can sign up, and you get to speak. So, I expect there’s going to be quite a few comments.”

Devin said he did not know what was on the bench before seeing it unveiled at the March 16 dedication.

“I don’t remember it ever being approved or brought before the school board,” he said.

The Charlotte County Patriots varsity football team, which plays in the Charlotte County Youth Football League, dedicated the ornate bench to the Randolph-Henry athletic department in Osborne’s honor. Osborne was a former Patriot and Statesmen, a multi-sport athlete who graduated from Randolph-Henry in May 2016. He died in an all-terrain vehicle crash on Aug. 27, 2016.

Teresa Dunaway, who is running to represent her district on the school board, was instrumental in helping make the bench a reality along with the Patriot players, which included some of her grandchildren.

She said that during the planning stages of the bench, she stressed that it had a Bible verse to both RHHH Principal Robbie Mason R-HHS Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Chris Holt.

“I don’t know that that’s factual,” Devin said. “I think there’s some dissension there whether that conversation ever happened.”

In Leonard’s brief history of how the bench came to be, she said, “Last year, a community member indicated an interest to high school administration to give a bench for the baseball field in memory of a student. The next contact was that the bench was ready and had been placed. It was not what anyone from the school administration expected to see at the entrance of the athletic facilities. However, it was a loving gesture, so we let it be.”

Devin said, “I didn’t know what it was going to be. I was there the night that the presentation was made. I was there for the ceremony, I was there to watch the baseball game. And when they pulled the cover off and raised it up, and I looked at it and saw that Bible verse, I’m not a trained school administrator, but I know from my years and years on the school board, I knew that was not the right place to have that, on school property.”

JonPaul Berkley, the Bacon/Saxe District representative on the school board, said, “The bench should stay there, in my opinion. It’s not an endorsement of any type of religion. It’s a bench in memory of Colton Osborne. It’s got a disclaimer on the back of it, and they are saying it’s illegal, which it’s not. I’ve talked to several people that are very knowledgeable in that, and they said, ‘No.’ If the school paid for it, if the county paid for it, it would have to be removed. That was not the case. It was paid for by an outside group.”

R.B. “Jay” George, the Keysville District representative on the school board, said the bench was never brought before the board, but if it had been, he would have voted to have it placed where it is since no taxpayer dollars were used to put it there.

“I do not support the removal of the bench or the scripture,” he said.

He was also critical of how administration handled the situation back during the planning stages of the bench.

“It seems like no one ever evaluated this thing during the inception of it,” he said.

Berkley indicated that it seems someone did not do their due diligence.

“What concerns me more than anything in this whole situation is this family is going back through the loss of a child again because of this situation,” he said. “It’s a sad situation. It really is. And I feel awful for them to have to be going through this. And the sad part is this was approved by the superintendent back when it was brought up. It was OK. Now, whether or not they done their due diligence and done what they should have and seen what was on the bench and whatnot, I have no idea. The people that were doing it, I talked to three different ones, and they were told that the scripture was fine on there because it was a memorial to him. It wasn’t an endorsement of any type (of) religion. And I think just this whole thing has been mishandled by the superintendent and the others involved in it. And it’s awful. It’s awful for this family and the community.”

Berkley said if there was a concern about the legality of the bench, “the time to have (addressed) that was in the beginning before it was ever put there, not after it’s been placed there…” he said.

Explaining why there was no immediate action taken back in March, Devin said it was “because it was such a sensitive issue and everybody felt so much empathy for the family for losing their son. Even though I knew in my mind when they raised the cover and I saw it, I didn’t want to speak to it, because I’m a born again Christian. I go to church. I didn’t want to complain about it. Nobody else wanted to complain about it after it was on there. I knew it wasn’t exactly appropriate, but I didn’t want to raise the issue because the family was there, and they were proud to have the memorial, and everybody thought it was a wonderful thing. And I think it is a wonderful thing, and I want the memorial to stay there, but we have got to be in compliance with the law. The law is the law.”

He added that “as a school board member, I can’t risk being sued having the taxpayers to defend against a lawsuit. We can’t risk losing our federal and our state funds and our lunches. We get so much assistance for these lunches, free lunches to impoverished people, low-income families. We can’t lose that. It’s just absolutely absurd to think that we can do something to put that in jeopardy.”

Devin also noted that school board could not plead ignorance if a lawsuit happens.

“Our attorney, Craig Wood, is the foremost school law attorney in the state of Virginia, and he has said point blank, ‘You have got to remove it. You’re in violation,’” Devin said.

George expressed disappointment with how the issue was brought up to the Osborne family, specifically Colton’s parents, Eddie and Teresa Osborne. Dunaway had stated that Teresa was notified through a phone call.

“I don’t think it’s been very personal,” George said. “I feel like when you have something like this, you need to go have the decency to sit down and talk to people in person, not a phone call.”

Devin, Berkley and George all expressed how much it bothered them that the Osborne family was being subjected to this situation.

Devin said, “I’ve talked to the Osborne family numerous times, and I had lunch with Eddie Osborne today, and Eddie has come up with what he wants to happen, and I think it’s a wonderful idea. Eddie wants to have the bench removed, put at the gravesite where Colton is buried, because so many of his friends are continually coming to visit the gravesite. He wants the bench there where they can sit and visit with Colton at his grave. He wants to pay for himself another memorial bench, exactly just like the one that’s there, with all the names of the little Patriots on the back of it, everything identical — he’s already talked to the monument company — but the only thing he is going to not have a Biblical verse there.”

The idea is for a slogan to take the place of the verse, something like, “He competed for the love of the sport,” Devin said.

“He’s run that by Mr. Holt, and I think that Mr. Holt and Mr. Mason are in agreement with him,” Devin said. “And the family would wish that this would just please go away. They have suffered enough.”

Devin said that if the family has made it clear what it wants done with the bench, “I don’t know why Ms. Dunaway and Mr. Jon Berkley, Paul Berkley, can’t be satisfied with that and just let it be.”

Berkley said, “I think at this point, (the Osbornes) have been run through the ringer with this so much that they just want it to be over with, and I can understand that. I feel for them because of that. No, I don’t think their wishes are for it to be moved at all, I don’t think that’s their wishes. But I think they would be willing to do that just so this will end. This thing has been all over the TV and newspapers and everything else, and it’s awful.”

Devin advocated for following Eddie Osborne’s plan to let the controversy be done with.

Devin said the conflict is “not serving anybody’s good interests. It’s not serving the school system, it’s not serving the citizens of the county to keep this thing ongoing and all stirred up. It’s not serving any purpose for the betterment of our children. It’s nothing. It’s wasted time, energy, and it’s going to be waste money too if we have to get involved into a suit.”

Kenny Redmond, the Aspen/Phenix District representative on the school board, said, “Members of the school system are talking to (Colton’s parents), and the parents will have some input into what would happen with that bench, and I think that would be the best way to do it is to let the parents help with that decision.”

As for a decision on placement of the bench had it been brought before the board originally, Redmond said, “I think it’s really up to the attorneys. When you have attorneys, you’ve got to listen to what the attorneys say and what the law says. So, that’s what’s got to happen.”

Devin said, “The administration’s being portrayed as, I guess, being anti-Christian, and that’s not the case. We are all good, conscientious, God-loving people, but we’ve got a responsibility to adhere to the law, and it’s as simple as that.”

Redmond said, “If people will just calm down a little bit and let the school board handle some of the situation, we can probably get this thing solved pretty quickly.”