Lanita Lum Is Still Fighting For What Is Right

April 23, 2012

Not everyone around here may remember Lanita Lum, but the folks up in Saucon Valley are getting a healthy dose of Ms. Fight For Right.

Lum was the founder, and publisher, of The Saucon News, and later the Managing Editor of The Free Press from 2001 to 2007, during the time of unprecedented political upheaval in Quakertown, Richland, and QCSD. Along with publisher Jim Webb, she turned TFP into a voice for the community, incorporating opinion columns (including The Silent Majority), editorials, and investigative reporting that had never been a part of the paper's 120+ year history.

Under her guidance, TFP's circulation increased from less than 3,000 to more than 17,000. The paper revealed the questionable policies of Quakertown Police Chief James McFadden, and the illegal activities of Borough Manager Dave Woglom. Both resigned. Two Council Presidents lost re-election bids, and most other members were given the boot. Wannabe politicians in both Quakertown and Richland were soundly defeated after revelations unfolded about their backgrounds and agendas.

The Free Press was so successful that it caught the eye of national media giant Journal Register Company, which bought the paper in 2006. After a frustrating year working for JRC corporate types, Lum left journalism to become Vice President of Membership & Marketing of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. Within a year after her departure, JRC declared bankruptcy, and closed most of its holdings, including TFP.

But Lum never lost the Fight For Right fire. She ran for school director in her home community of Saucon Valley, winning a seat on the board that she had frequently criticized. And she has resoundingly made her presence felt.

Several weeks ago, 18-year-old senior honor student Jodie Rosati (who also wrote for the school newspaper!) was told she would not be allowed to walk with her twin brother at graduation. The high school principal informed her father that she was no longer recognized as a student because she was short four credits, according to Saucon's enhanced credit requirements that differ from state-mandated criteria. With no other options offered to earn a high school diploma, she enrolled in an accredited, school district-approved cyber school.

And why did Rosati use the cyber school instead of spending her final year with her friends? Because she was at home, being a mother to her newborn son. The Saucon Valley administration decided that she wasn't worthy to walk with her peers. Lum, whose son, Cory, graduated from SV last year, heard about the decision from other students. She was outraged. And she had plenty to say:

"I knew her twin brother, who had been to our house several times, a very nice young man, but didn't know that he had a twin until I heard about her story through Cory's best friend, who is also a Saucon senior this year. So, I invited Jodie to my home, and spent the afternoon with her and the baby. I wanted to know her story, beginning to end, and how the school treated her, while getting to know her and observing her with her baby. In my opinion, the school administrators' treatment toward her was disgustingly criminal and discriminating.

She is very intelligent - in fact, an honor roll student consistently over the years - and a wonderful mother. To not allow her to walk with her peers, and be recognized by her community for her academic success - as well as determination, courage and ability to succeed - is discriminating due to health circumstances relative to the child. The only option the school ever really gave her to insure she walks with her peers would have been terminating the pregnancy, or placing the child for adoption upon birth.

NOT ON MY WATCH!!! Women have the right to choose. She CHOSE to have the baby, and achieved academic success, despite any odds against her. Even though she didn't qualify for a diploma from our district, she had already received one in January by accomplishing the state standards. Why would we deny her the symbolic opportunity to walk with her peers? She will succeed, is engaged to the father, and pursuing her higher education through our outstanding community college. Truly, a young woman I admire! I'm proud I could make a difference in her life. But if I accomplish nothing else significant while serving my four years as a school board director, this is what I am most proud of, and passionate about - standing up for this young woman, against what I saw as just plain wrong."

Lum asked her fellow directors to issue a waiver to the school credit policy, so Rosati could have the same experience as her peers, and walk at this year's graduation ceremony "with honor". But not all of them agreed with her. And, frankly, their stated reason stinks: The decision to ban Jodie came from the administration, and some directors felt that going against those people could "harm the working relationship" between the board and administrators. Perhaps they forgot that the administration works for the board, not the other way around.

Good leaders - good employers - have to be able to make the tough decisions without regard for whether their employees agree, or will be happy about it. School directors are elected to represent the community. Their decisions should reflect what is best for the residents, not a few administrators. Board President Michael Karabin actually supported Rosati, but demonstrated a definite lack of tact and political correctness when he referred to Jodie's pregnancy as "getting into trouble." Lum immediately responded by yelling, "Trouble!? Getting into trouble?"

The result of Ms. Fight For Rights' efforts fulfilled what Rosati says is "one of my biggest dreams, to walk across that stage!" The board voted 7-2 to allow Rosati to walk at graduation. She won't receive a Saucon Valley diploma, but will get the symbolic recognition of the jacket cover that's handed to all participating graduates.

Rosati texted Lum "You have no idea how thankful I am. You are like a modern-day, fairy godmother. I am overly joyed and cannot wait for graduation! I hope YOU can hand me my diploma, too! I'm glad you fought so hard for me and my son. It will be one of my biggest dreams to walk across that stage!"

The administration is not nearly as thrilled. Superintendent Sandra Fellin's comments are as troubling as her initial decision. Fellin maintains that her initial denial, based on her interpretation of district policy, was correct, despite the board's directive to send the students, and community, the exact opposite message.

Fellin also told The Morning Call that although the administration disagrees with the ruling, it will comply with the directive. She still seems to be missing the point: The administration is not being given an option to comply or not. They are being told, in no uncertain terms, that their actions were wrong, discriminatory, and unacceptable to the community. School policy is set by the board. If any employee can't comply, let her/him take their prejudices elsewhere.

Jodie Rosati isn't the only one fortunate that Lanita Lum is on the school board. All of Saucon Valley should be thankful that Ms. Fight For Right was there. Because the alternative might have been The American Civil Liberties Union, or someone angry at the administration's discriminatory actions, taking the matter to court, with nationwide publicity.

The Free Press and Saucon News would have loved to cover that story .