Schools explain prayer policy
9/26/01 Kingsport Times News.
KINGSPORT - After a student protest last week to "have prayer in school," Kingsport City Schools released a statement Wednesday outlining "facts about prayer" in the school system. The statement notes that students are given a moment of silence each morning and may pray during that moment if they choose. "A student may also pray during school hours as long as a staff member does not participate in the prayer and class instruction is not disturbed,'' the release states.
Dobyns-Bennett students stage walkout to protest prayer restrictions
By JOELLEN WEEDMAN KINGSPORT - About 25 Dobyns-Bennett High School students staged a walkout Thursday morning to protest prayer restrictions in school. "We are wanting prayer to be in schools because we feel we need it,'' said Stephanie Mullins, a D-B junior who helped coordinate the walkout.
Students left their classrooms and gathered in front of the Kingsport City Schools central office for about 20 minutes chanting, "We're on strike. We're standing for what's right,'' and singing "Amazing Grace.'' No prayer was said during the walkout. Donna Childress, Stephanie Mullins' mother, said the students are concerned about their nation and their school - particularly after last week's terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. "(President) Bush even said this is a war against good and evil," Childress said. "If people don't want to pray, let them step aside."
Mullins said the students "just want to pray at school in the morning." "It's the most powerful weapon we have," said D-B student Meagan Smith. D-B principal Judd Porter said the school has a moment of silence every day during the morning announcements. "We have never missed a day,'' he said. "We've been doing it for years." Childress said a moment of silence is not the same as prayer. "A moment of silence ain't nothing," she said. Students also alleged that they had put up signs saying "God Bless America," and they were taken down.
"They told us we could not put up signs that say "God Bless America," said Smith. "We sing 'God Bless America." Porter said he did see "a couple signs" at the high school, but the administration did not take them down. "There were some signs in the building that said 'God Bless America," he said. "It made me a little uneasy, but given the circumstances I said let's let the students express themselves." He said if the signs were put up with tape they could have been taken down because it is against school policy to use tape to hang signs in the hallways. "Any sign put up with tape is taken down,'' he said. Porter also said there are groups that meet before and after school and during lunch - planned and spontaneous - that participate in Bible study and prayer.
"I have groups of kids who spontaneously gather and share a time of worship nearly every day," he said. After the protest the students' parents were called and students were sent home. Porter said the issue would be treated on the basis of insubordination and truancy. Those offenses are punishable by suspension, but KCS community relations coordinator Chad Hall said it is against school policy to discuss disciplinary actions taken against students. City Attorney Mike Billingsley arrived at the central office to meet with KCS Superintendent Nancy Vance shortly after the students left.
"We want to make sure we're in compliance with everything - this is a touchy issue," Hall said. During the protest, Childress told the students they could not be suspended. "They can't suspend you - it's freedom of speech," she told the group. "I don't think it's fair for them to be suspended," she said. "God will get them - you don't go against God." Punishing the students is not a matter of freedom of speech, Hall said. "We believe in freedom of speech, but we're also in the business of educating students," he said. "We don't want that to be hindered by disruptive students." He also said federal law about praying in school is not something Kingsport officials have control over. "It's not something we can just change," he said. "We can't enforce someone to have a certain type of prayer in school."
Porter said the administration has to follow those laws, as do students. "And there is something fundamentally wrong with sending a message to kids that it's OK to disobey a law because you disagree with it," he said. "We have to go by the law, and they have to go by the law - it's part of living in a democratic society."
Copyright 2001 Kingsport Times-News
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