The school board voted 4-1 to adopt the “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Project ” in its meeting Monday night. The Charger staff has serious concerns about whether the program is necessary or appropriate for our district.
A statement released by superintendent Brad Starnes stated that “the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Project is to provide teachers and staff guidance regarding religion at school.”
The current plan includes a 30-minute professional development video to train staff how to handle school issues regarding faith according to the U.S. Department of Education’s federal guidance on religious expression. The project would also include the displaying of posters concerning student’s constitutional first amendment rights regarding religious expression in school.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who supports the first amendment more than journalism students, and in that sense, we absolutely support some of the program’s goals. Students should be aware of their rights, staff members should seek to support those rights and everyone should feel secure exercising their faith, whether it’s the dominant faith in their community or not.
However, we are not comfortable in the specifically Christian focus of Gateways to Better Education, the organization cited in documents about the project. Our research on the organization’s site uncovered several troubling things, including anti-evolution literature and guides for parents seeking to ban books from the school.
It’s not the role of a public school district to promote any specific religion. If the project were to promote freedoms without promoting a specific religion, that might be acceptable, but we have our doubts about that happening in our community. This risks alienating non-Christians and non-religious students. High school kids already face so many challenges, another opportunity for alienation is something we should avoid.
We also have an issue with the way this project was presented to the district and the secrecy that seemed to surround it.
The website gogateways.org is linked with the program, unfortunately the address was not included in the explanatory statement released by the district. Superintendent Starnes provided the link to the Charger after the meeting, and the Charger published the website in our article covering Monday’s board meeting — but as much as we would like to believe everyone in the community reads our work, we know that it is not the reality. This information should have also been released on an official district platform like the website or Twitter account as to inform a much larger audience of citizens. One board member noted feedback he had received from a few families as support for the program, but as far as we can tell, there was no attempt to cast a wider net for feedback.
In the discussion Monday night, we don’t feel that the board adequately explained the need for this program in our schools. Have there been complaints from students about violations of their religious liberties? It seems like we already allow and support religious expression. The high school hosts two Christian non-curricular clubs: Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Rooted in Christ. Our policies show deference to religion in other ways as well — we avoid scheduling activities on Wednesday nights because of religious classes, we serve meatless meals on Fridays during Lent and we have a four-day weekend for Easter.
As for the Bible being used in the classroom, that’s already happening. One of our English teachers has used both the Bible and the Quran in literature lessons. Our social studies teachers discuss world religions in multiple grades. This program doesn’t empower anything that isn’t already in place.
Board member Justin Frank asked if there was a Bible in the school library. There are four in the WHS library, which have never been checked out according to librarian Kristin Berroth. There are currently no other holy books in the library, but Berroth noted that the library does accept donations, which are subject to board approval.
Members of the Wabaunsee staff also had a strong response to the proposed program. The Wabaunsee Education Association sent a letter to the board questioning both the need for the program and the process by which it was approved. We hope other stakeholders don’t hesitate to express their feelings as well.
The Charger staff would also like to applaud board member Kelly Oliver for voicing her concerns on the project, even though no one else in the room took her side. Oliver was the only board member to vote against the program (Callie Meinhardt was not present at that point of the meeting, and Jim Vopata has resigned from the board). Oliver seemed to have researched the program and raised legitimate concerns. The fact that other members were dismissive of those concerns is troubling.
We hope that teachers, parents and community members take time to research the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Project for themselves, and be proactive about contacting board members when they make up your mind. If any student or staff member feels that their rights are being violated, we want them to feel supported in reporting those issues to administrators.
We also think that some of our concerns could be easily avoided. The cost of the program is $1 per staff member. Surely such a small amount can be raised from a private donation. If taxpayer dollars aren’t used, and the professional development is optional, some of our issues would be lessened.
In Monday’s meeting, board member Justin Frank said “The church and state line has gotten so thick that people don’t walk it at all. I think this is helping to maybe blur that line.”
Whether we’re Christian or not, it isn’t the school’s role to promote one religion over the other. The line between church and state exists for a reason, and we hope that our public institutions don’t seek to remove it.
The editorial is the opinion of the Charger staff. Students discuss editorial topics as a group and write an opinion that represents a majority of the staff.
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