A Facebook post by a member of the Lanesborough School Committee raised eyebrows in the Mount Greylock community.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A Mount Greylock Regional School guidance counselor and member of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee said on Wednesday that he regretted a "crude joke" on social media that led to condemnation by alumni of the high school.
P.J. Pannesco said a single comment that was captured and distributed to members of the Mount Greylock School Committee was part of joking exchange between himself and a former student.
Commenting on a story about the potential of a North Korean nuclear strike on the West Coast of the United States, Pannesco wrote that such a possibility would be "good" and used an offensive term derived from an antiquated and hurtful term for the mentally disabled.
Pannesco, who made the comment on Sunday, said he could not believe anyone thought he actually wished harm to millions of Americans and he felt bad about using the term "libtard," which he misspelled in the post.
Repeatedly, Wednesday, he emphasized the joking nature of the exchange.
"I stay in touch with lots of former students," Pannesco said. "This particular student and I go back and forth on lots of things. He's a Yankees fan, and I'm a Red Sox fan, and we go after each other about that. It was a joke. That's the kind of thing we do.
"Clearly, someone picked that up and thinks that I'm an insensitive person."
The full comment, timestamped 12:53 p.m. Sunday afternoon, reads: "Seattle!!!! Good! Fewer libards/progressives...Then if the hit California, we'd be all set!"
Pannesco said he was sorry to use "libtard," a term popularized by fringe right-wing media and frequently used on internet bulletin boards and in the comment sections of articles, including on this website.
"That's insensitive, and I should not have used it," he said. "It's not a nice thing for me to say. In that respect, I was wrong and should not have used that term.
"I don't know how to fix it. I hope people don't believe that I hold any ill will toward people with disabilities. I certainly feel bad about it and am sorry about it."
Pannesco had not given the off-hand "crude joke" a second thought until Wednesday morning when Mount Greylock's interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady called him.
Grady, who also serves as the Williamstown-Lanesborough Tri-District's director of pupil personnel services, responsible for special education programs, learned of the Facebook post in a Wednesday morning email.
"I was taken off guard and surprised," she said. "I immediately picked up the phone and called him.
"I told him, 'I can't tell you what to do, but I'm asking you if you think it is appropriate.' … I called him at 7:31, and at 7:47, the post was down."
Grady said she spoke to Pannesco in his capacity as a member of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee. Through the Tri-District shared services agreement, the superintendent and central administration is shared between the Mount Greylock, Lanesborough and Williamstown Elementary schools.
Grady said she and Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald would have a separate conversation with Pannesco in his capacity as a guidance counselor at the junior-senior high school. Reached at her office early Wednesday afternoon, Grady said she did not know off the top of her head whether Pannesco's position is a union job.
Grady is in the odd position of both supervising Pannesco and answering to him. As the interim superintendent, she is the district's "CEO," but she is also employed by the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee and Superintendency Union 71, a joint committee of the Williamstown and Lanesborough school committees on which Pannesco serves.
Pannesco's post was brought to light by Jay Stevens, a Mount Greylock alumnus.
Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hebert said Wednesday she reached out to Stevens to tell him the administration was addressing the situation.
In a Tuesday post in the Mount Greylock Alumni group, Stevens cc'd the letter he said he sent to the Mount Greylock School Committee and The Berkshire Eagle. Pannesco's post had generated a heated debate on the alumni board and letters to the School Committee. Hundreds of comments defended and decried his post and referred to previous ones.
"Mr. Pannesco is entitled to hold whatever political views he wishes," writes Stevens, whose own Facebook profile says he is a Minneapolis resident who grew up in Lanesborough. "However, I believe Mr. Pannesco's views make him incompatible with Mt Greylock's values. I am appalled that a man holding such views is tasked with working with the community's children."
On Wednesday, Grady said she had no reason to question Pannesco's values prior to Wednesday morning.
"I see him in action," Grady said. "He cares about kids. He cares about the community.
"I have to remember all the good that the man does."
Pannesco said that while he has been monitoring Facebook since hearing about Stevens' letter on Wednesday morning, he is not at the moment posting anything on the social media site.
"I do know everything is public," he said. "I guess I should have put a big 'LOL' to indicate that it was a crude joke. I apologize to anyone who was offended. I should have known better, though, because everything is public."
Grady said her colleague is running into the kind of problem that educators warn students about: what happens when you distribute ill-advised and ill-thought notions to a worldwide audience.
"What people feel is a shared conversation is not a private sharing if it's on a social feed," Grady said. "Is this a teachable moment? Absolutely."
Pannesco on Wednesday was talking like a person who had been taught a painful lesson.
"It was not a smart thing to do," he said. "It was a crass comment that I made off the cuff to an old buddy that I wish I could take back."
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