Archive for Wednesday, December 10, 2003

School board examines ACLU allegations

December 10, 2003

Santa Claus won't be visiting any Baldwin school this year. Instead the district will be taking a closer look at how religions and their holidays are represented and learned about in the schools.

The Baldwin Board of Education spent much of Monday's meeting discussing whether Santa's visits to the schools were appropriate and how much emphasis was placed on Christmas and other religious holidays.

"We need to make sure we're doing the right thing for all our kids," Board President Ed Schulte said. "We need to make sure we're not promoting one religion over another religion."

Santa's visit

The board's discussion came following a letter the district received from the American Civil Liberties Union in which the organization raised concerns about what it called improper religious activities occurring in the district.

One of the alleged incidents was last year's visit from Santa, who, the ACLU says, proselytized a sectarian message to students at the elementary schools.

Supt. James White said Santa has been visiting the schools to distribute candy canes to the students for the past several years. He said the district even has two Santa costumes it purchased for the annual event.

White said last year the assistant minister from his church played the role because of the minister's resemblance to Santa.

"You couldn't have a better Santa Claus," he said.

At each elementary school, White said, Santa asked the students why Christmas is celebrated.

"In every school, one or more children would pop up and say Jesus' birthday," he said.

Santa, he said, did not discuss religion further, but instead talked to the students about respecting parents and teachers as well as not smoking, drinking or using drugs.

"If that, in any way, can be proselytizing anyone, I certainly do apologize," White said.

"I see it as a message of education," he said. "If we try to hide the fact it's Jesus' birthday, I think that's inaccurate. That's the reason we celebrate it."

Board Member Stacy Cohen said parents should have been notified of Santa's visit and given a chance to opt their children out of the activity.

She said even though Santa is recognized as being secular and is allowed in schools, for those that don't celebrate Christmas or who celebrate Christmas as strictly a religious holiday, Santa's visit can be confusing for the students as it conflicts with the beliefs they've been taught at home.

"At school, the little kids don't have their parents there to explain it to them," she said. "It confuses them."

White agreed it was a good idea to notify parents of Santa's visit, but also thought it would be better if Santa did not visit the schools this year.

Schulte was also in favor of Santa not returning this year.

"I feel like we've already had a lot of distractions this year," he said. "We need to look at what we're doing and make sure we're doing the right and legal thing."

Religious diversity

Cohen told the board she also had concerns with how much focus Christmas got with school activities during this time of year. She used her daughter's class project -- a paper chain that counted down the days to Santa -- as an example of a school activity that could possibly exclude some students.

"A child that doesn't celebrate Santa, what are they counting down to?" she said.

"We're not inclusive of other religions," she said. "I don't see any of that other diversity coming home from school."

She wanted the district's schools not to ignore Christmas, but learn about other religions and their holidays as well.

"So it's educational for all students," she said.

White agreed with Cohen and said the district should take a closer look at how religions and their holidays are taught in the schools.

"I think those are really good comments," he said. "I don't think we should have any of our kids feeling excluded. If we have any of our kids feeling excluded, we need to look at what we're doing."

Other concerns

White told the board he hadn't received any more information about the allegations from the ACLU, other than what was in the letter.

Both he and Schulte said they were unsure how to address the concerns because the letter was not specific to the alleged infractions.

"We are a little bit blind in dealing with those allegations," Schulte said. "We don't know who we're talking about or when."

Baldwin High School Principal Allen Poplin explained the district's building use policy to the board, but said he was not sure if the allegations involved organizations using the facilities.

"It's frustrating not knowing the specifics," he said.

Poplin said under the equal access act, if the district allows one organization to use the facilities, all organizations must have access to the same facilities.

He said the district does allow use of the facilities, and groups like the Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs use them on a regular basis.

"We're used just about every night," he said.

A religious youth group, he said, had even used one of the buildings a few times during the past couple of years.

But no group, he said, had ever been given special treatment or been denied use of the facilities.

Schulte said more information, either from the ACLU or from parents or patrons, would be needed before the board could act further on the allegations.

"We do want to take it seriously, we do want to be respectful, and we do want to do the right thing," he said. "We will try to follow up on any issues that come forward."

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