School board shuts down public comment on charges of teacher-student relationship

Public not allowed at North West Hendricks school board meeting

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article stated Tyler Bruce was on paid administrative leave as the district’s communication consultant initially told WISH-TV Tuesday evening. However, the communication consultant said Wednesday morning that Bruce is on unpaid leave, as WISH-TV reported in January. That has been corrected.

LIZTON, Ind. (WISH) — A school district facing community outrage shut out feedback from the public Tuesday night.

It’s the latest fallout in the North West Hendricks School Corporation, where three teachers and a former principal all face disciplinary action from the state in connection with allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a student and the head football coach who is a Tri-West math teacher, Tyler Bruce.

The board meeting was standing room only, but the public was banned from speaking.

That public comment period is usually a fixture at school board meetings. It’s a spot usually at the end for anyone from the public to speak, often limited to two minutes or less. But with all that’s gone on in recent months and weeks, the board suspended that until further notice.

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At the end of the meeting, where public comment usually happens, the district’s attorney read a short statement saying the board doesn’t have to take public comment. The meeting adjourned moments later.

One by one, people like Donna Lapadat filed out.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Lapadat, a resident of Hendricks County. “I think they’re cowards and they are not listening.”

“I’m appalled,” added Heather Armstrong, a parent of a Tri-West freshman.

“It upsets me,” said Cody Brunes, a 2017 Tri-West graduate. “I think everybody should have had a say-so.”

After the meeting, board president Jim Diagostino refused to answer any question to News 8 about the decision to cut public comment or the board’s handling of the Bruce case. To each question, he said “Donna Petraits over there will answer your questions,” referencing the communications consultant for the district.

“We understand people are frustrated. We know that. The board is frustrated too but their hands are tied in a lot of ways,” Petraits said.

That includes that Bruce, who faces felony charges, including child seduction, is on unpaid administrative leave almost a year after the investigation began.

Tri-West Dean of Students Stacey Begle and her husband Nathan Begle, the Tri-West athletics director, are also on paid leave since the Indiana Department of Education filed a complaint to suspend their licenses for not properly reporting Bruce’s alleged relationship with the student.

Another employee released a video of Bruce and the student publicly last week, leading to his termination and a student walkout by dozens.

So while some like Armstrong and Brunes believe, “there’s a lot of concern about this just being continued coverup after coverup,” she said.

“They can do that but it’s not going to silence us,” adds Brunes. “They keep making the community more frustrated.”

According to Petraits, the board said their move Tuesday is to continue to be productive.

“People in the community have used every avenue available to send messages to the board. So, I’m pretty sure nobody is having any trouble getting a message to the board.”

But again, as News 8 tried to ask Diagostino questions like, “When will you be willing to answer the questions from the public?” he would only respond with “Donna Petraits over there will answer your questions.”

Bruce has a termination hearing set for later in March month. He’s also due back in court March 25.

An online petition from people who say they have no faith in the school board has more than 400 names.

Armstrong said she also has some concerns about some financial expenditures the board is making but was not able to ask that Tuesday due to the lack of the public being able to speak.

A Tri-West student said there would be another protest Wednesday morning at 8:40, right as students walk into school.