Archive for Wednesday, May 11, 2005

School district to review policies

Questions raised over materials distributed following assemblies

May 11, 2005

Controversy over materials handed out after an April 6 assembly at two Tonganoxie schools underscores the school district's need to revise its policy on distribution of materials.

On April 6, character-building assemblies were held at the junior high and high school. The assemblies are part of the "Seven Project," which is sponsored by the Assembly of God church.

After the assembly ended, some junior high students handed out invitations to a church function set for that evening at the junior high and also distributed religious books.

Paula Gish, the mother of a junior high student, told Tonganoxie school board members at Monday night's meeting she was concerned because the assembly, which was held during the school day, was sponsored in part by some local churches and because religious material was distributed after the assembly.

The Seven Project is an outreach ministry of Youth Alive, which is connected with the Assemblies of God USA.

Gish noted the assembly had no religious content.

"But if the parent organization is the Assembly of God church, I don't know that there's not a lot of wiggle room here about what their focus is," Gish said. "I understand they did not discuss religion at this assembly, but I also know that what they did discuss were character issues."

Gish said her primary concern was that religious materials were handed out, and that she hoped this would not set a precedent.

"As a parent, I'm concerned that we've opened the door," Gish said.

Tonganoxie school Superintendent Richard Erickson said the assembly came about after he was contacted by the Rev. Ron Swaim, of the Cornerstone Family Church, which formerly was known as the Tonganoxie Assembly of God church.

"We were looking for some character education assemblies," Erickson said during the school board meeting. "We wanted to really improve character education in this district -- anti-drugs, anti-bullying. There's a lot of common themes that we want to be proactive on right now."

School board member Ron Moore said Gish made "an excellent point."

"We're all for good things," Moore said. "There are a hundred organizations that can do it, we don't have to get the Seven Project whose primary focus is religion -- are we pushing it or have we crossed the line -- and those are some of the things we need to look at."

Cindy Kelly, a Kansas Association of School Boards attorney, talked to board members about laws regarding distribution of materials.

"Once we allow them (schools) to be opened, to be used by outside groups, the courts have said we can't discriminate against a group based on what they want to talk about when they're using our facility," Kelly said.

But she noted, that doesn't give religious groups "the right to try to proselytize to our students or to try to convert them or tell them they should have certain religious beliefs."

What the district can do is to have time, place and manner restrictions, Kelly said.

"We can say this area is only open from 5 o'clock at night until 10 o'clock at night, or we can say is you want to distribute literature, we will set this table here by the door and that's where you can place it," Kelly said. "... As long as we're treating all viewpoints the same, we're not discriminating."

And, she noted, religion itself is in its own category.

"It can't be school-sponsored," Kelly said. "You have to have a faculty member supervise the use of a facility, you can not have a school employee involved in a religious activity with the students -- the group needs to be student-initiated and student-led in order to fall under the equal access act."

The law applies only in secondary schools, not in elementary schools, Kelly said.

And she noted, there's no law that says schools must allow non-school related events or distribution of materials.

"You could say we are going to have a totally closed forum at this school," Kelly said.

When board member Ron Moore said that plan would cut out a lot of hassles, Kelly responded, saying, "It could, but it's also politically very unpopular."

Board members asked Kelly to update the school's policy regarding the distribution of materials.

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