Middle school student suspended for harassing teacher about religion

September 30, 2003


COLONIAL HEIGHTS - A Colonial Heights Middle School student was suspended last week after she encouraged another student to put a religious pamphlet on a teacher's desk.

School officials say the eighth-grader was not suspended for handing out religious material, but for repeatedly discussing her beliefs with a teacher after being told not to.

The incident apparently arose out of a biology class discussion, where the theories of creation were being reviewed as part of the state curriculum.

Colonial Heights Middle School principal Mike Cline said the biology class was covering the big bang theory of creation, and students were told that the theory was only being discussed as information and was not being encouraged as a belief.

Cline said some students in the class wanted to discuss the Christian theory of man's creation but were told by the teacher that she could not lead a discussion related to religion.

"What always pops up when they teach these kinds of thing is kids want to talk about (religion), and our teachers say we can't discuss those things in school. ... What happens is these kids get in their minds that OK, she (the teacher) doesn't want to talk about religion and Christianity, then therefore she must be an atheist. We've talked to the kids and warned them not to say these things. It is hurtful. ... After we warn them, then there are consequences,'' Cline said.

Cline said the student was initially chastised for being part of a "rumor mill" concerning the teacher's religious beliefs. Cline said the rumors were disrupting class and were harmful to the teacher.

A day or two after Cline warned the student, Cline said she encouraged another student to place a Christian pamphlet on the teacher's desk. The teacher found the pamphlet and reported it to school officials.

"This is a great little girl, and I hate that she got involved in this ... and she doesn't understand how this could be offensive. ... (The teacher) felt like it was a form of harassment. It was hurtful to her. She's asked them and talked with them, and after the second or third time, you know she has feelings. She is tired of kids drawing those conclusions about her. ... Teachers have the same rights as kids do," Cline said.

Sullivan County School Superintendent John O'Dell said the student was suspended for one day because she failed to follow an order to stop discussing religious beliefs with the teacher.

O'Dell said students are allowed to pass out any kind of religious or other types of pamphlets in school as long as they are not offensive or disruptive.

"Student to student is no problem. We bend over backward to allow that kind of thing. And teachers are very open to student opinions, but not over and over. And evidently that is what happened in this case," O'Dell said.

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.

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