ACLU Wants Norfolk School to Investigate Further Teachers' Accusations That Principal Pushed Religion

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 25, 2010 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Virginia
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Norfolk, VA – The ACLU of Virginia has asked the Superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools to investigate more thoroughly claims that the Principal of Oakwood Elementary School pressured students to participate in religions exercises in school, and to consider taking disciplinary action.

The ACLU originally wrote the Superintendent Jones on March 30, after learning of reports that Oakwood Principal Sheila Holas had brought her minister to school to offer sermons and organized students to pray before taking SOLs. Jones told the ACLU that he would be conducting a “climate study” of the school that would include an examination of the allegations.

Another ACLU letter, sent on May 21, responded to the Executive Summary of the climate study. Noting that the study appeared to verify the original accusations but otherwise contains little new information, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Glenberg requested that Jones launch a more thorough investigation. Glenberg also asked Jones if he has taken, or plans to take, any disciplinary action against Holas.

“The Supreme Court has visited over and over again the issue of religious activities in public schools because school officials must be made to understand that they must protect the religious rights of every student while never using the authority of their position to organize or pressure students to engage in religions activities,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis”

Since the ACLU inquired about the religious violations, the Virginian Pilot reported that Holas has been suspended from her duties while Jones investigates a separate, but possibly related, allegation that a school official had distributed plastic fetus dolls to students at the school.

“The key to protecting religions liberty in public schools is the presence of trained professionals at the top to make sure the rules are followed,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “When the principal becomes the rule breaker, then the religious rights of students are seriously jeopardized.”

“The climate study is disappointingly sparse,” added Willis, “but it does verify our suspicions that constitutional violations of occurred at Oakwood Elementary. The questions that remain are, how egregious are those violations were and what does the superintendent intend do about them?”

A copy of the two ACLU letters sent to Superintendent Jones follow.

May 21, 2010

Via Facsimile (757-628-3820)

Dr. Stephen C. Jones
Superintendent
Norfolk Public Schools
800 E. City Hall Avenue, Rm. 1200
Norfolk, VA 23510

Dear Dr. Jones:

This is to follow up on our previous communications regarding prayer at Oakwood Elementary School. We have reviewed the Executive Summary of the climate study, and we have the following comments and recommendations:

It is clear from the summary that serious constitutional violations have occurred. First, the principal has invited teachers to participate in prayer or bible study before or after school. It is not clear how frequent these sessions are, or whether they take place on or off school grounds. In any case, it is completely inappropriate for the principal to invite teachers to take part in religious activities. Regardless of whether these activities are “voluntary,” such invitations are inherently coercive because of the power differential between principal and teachers. Moreover, these religious activities – especially if conducted on school grounds – convey a message that the school endorses religion generally or a particular religion. For the same reasons, it is impermissible to invite a pastor to address a faculty meeting, as the principal here appears to have done.

Second, it appears from at least one faculty member’s description that the principal asked students to stand and pray before the Standards of Learning test. This is consistent with the report to the state Board of Education that precipitated this study. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear, such school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional because students are coerced into participating in religious activity, and are made to feel like outsiders if they decline to do so.

Some faculty also indicated that students participated in bible study, but the context in which this occurred is unclear. If this took place as part of an extracurricular activity outside of instructional hours, then it was likely permissible. However, if the principal or teachers asked students to participate in bible study, then this is another constitutional violation.

The lack of clarity regarding the circumstances under which teachers were invited to participate in prayer or bible study, the circumstances of the SOL test incident, and the circumstances of student participation in bible study indicates that further investigation of this matter is required.

However, in light of the established constitutional violations, it is also clear that immediate action must be taken. In my conversations with you and Yvonne Young, you indicated that a team would review the summary and recommend corrective action. It is not clear whether this has already taken place. If it has, I request that you provide a copy of the recommendations.

In any case, it is obvious that the principal must be instructed as to the constitutional rights of teachers and students, and must cease all religious overtures to teachers and students and all organized religious activity on school grounds. It should be made clear to the principal that further breaches of the constitution will not be tolerated. Teachers should also receive instruction about constitutional standards for religion in public school, and should be encouraged to report any further unconstitutional activity that they observe.

Thank you for your willingness to address this important matter. I look forward to learning what corrective actions the school district will take. Should you wish to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to call me at (804) 644-8080.

Sincerely,

Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director

March 30, 2010

Via Facsimile (757-628-3820)

Dr. Stephen C. Jones
Superintendent
Norfolk Public Schools
800 E. City Hall Avenue, Rm. 1200
Norfolk, VA 23510

Dear Dr. Jones:

We were disturbed to read today’s article in the Virginian-Pilot concerning prayer at Oakwood Elementary School. If true, the allegations contained in the article describe serious First Amendment violations, and immediate steps must be taken to ensure that they do not recur.

According to the article, teachers at Oakwood Elementary complained that they were instructed to hold hands and pray with students before administering Standards of Learning tests. The article further indicated that a pastor from the principal’s church regularly visited the school to deliver sermons and lead prayer sessions, in which teachers were instructed or pressured to participate. It was not clear from the article whether students also attended these sessions.

Certainly, students are entitled to pray individually before taking a test. However, as you are no doubt aware, the Supreme Court has held for decades that the Constitution prohibits schools from holding organized religious exercises for students. School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, 372 U.S. 901 (1963); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Nor may school indirectly coerce students into participating in prayers. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).

Similarly, public schools may not pressure teachers to participate in prayers, or deliver official prayers at mandatory teachers’ meetings or other events. Warnock v. Archer, 380 F.3d 1076 (8th Cir. 2004).

According to the allegations in the Virginian-Pilot article, these fundamental constitutional precepts were violated at Oakwood Elementary School. We therefore urge you to undertake a thorough investigation into all instances of students or teachers being subjected to inappropriate religious pressure, and to make the results of the investigation public. If any of these allegations are substantiated, prompt action should be taken to ensure that administrators understand and comply with Constitutional norms.

Please let us know whether you intend to investigate this issue. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me at (804) 644-8080. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director

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