Federal law and doing ‘what’s right’ reasons cited for continued accommodation
The Little Falls School District and its superintendent have come under scrutiny for alleged accommodations made for Muslim students, in deference to their religious beliefs. Those include allowing them to pray in a separate room, how they dress during physical education and more.
Little Falls Supt. Stephen Jones again addressed the issue at Monday’s School Board meeting, as he has done a number of times over the past year on radio shows, in the Record, and during small group meetings ever since Muslim students enrolled in Little Falls Community Schools in the spring of 2016.
Before he began to address topics brought forth in a letter to the editor in the Feb. 12 issue of the Record, Jones quoted Charles the Great: “Right action is better than knowledge; but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.”
Jones said the information printed in the letter to the editor, that also called for his resignation, bothered him — but not for what it said about him.
“What’s at the core of this is what the underlying message is, what it says about our kids — and our kids are every single one of our kids,” Jones said.
Accommodating students’ religious beliefs is nothing new, Jones said. In fact, it’s been going on for many years, for Christian students at Little Falls, the superintendent said.
There are no sporting events scheduled for Wednesday evenings, because that is “church night,” a night when Christian students attend their religious education. Any student attending a mission trip is excused from class, and he pointed out school breaks around Christian religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Christian students are excused to attend Ash Wednesday services, and are never asked to wash the ashes off their foreheads upon returning to school.
He pointed out the prayer around the flagpole at the middle school will continue as it always has, the Pledge of Allegiance will be recited in all the schools and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes will continue to meet at the school.
“It’s important to note, we are in fact allowed to and are encouraged to provide accommodations for our kids,” Jones said. “If we did not accommodate our kids, no matter who they are, our schools would look a whole lot different than they do right now.”
The Supreme Court’s definition of providing accommodations is left up to local entities, as long as it does not provide a substantial disruption to the school day, he said.
“That’s been our guiding factor as we look at all accommodations in our buildings each and every day,” Jones said.
He also noted the tenets of “Flyer Pride” — respect, responsibility, positive attitude and safety.
In putting forth those Flyer Pride tenets, “Why wouldn’t we offer cultural and religious opportunity for somebody to take advantage of?” Jones asked.
“I hope our community buys into it (Flyer Pride), because our kids sure do,” Jones said.
In discussing the accommodations made for the Muslim students, Jones said they are allowed to use a number of spaces in the middle school to pray, depending upon what’s happening in those rooms.
“It’s wherever we can fit a time for them in the day,” Jones said. There are no rooms designated solely for use for prayer.
At the high school, one teacher has offered her classroom as a space when she is not using it.
Jones showed excusing the students for prayer did not add up to a significant disruption in the school day.
“It runs like this: two minutes for kids to leave class, five minutes there, and two minutes back to class,” he said.
“As you apply the Supreme Court’s definition of substantial disruption of the school day, it doesn’t cut it,” Jones said.
As with any accommodation, “If it’s violated, if kids take advantage of it, it goes away,” he said.
Students pray in the school each and every day, Jones said.
“If you walk into our high school commons, middle school commons at lunch time, you will see tables of people praying. You will see individuals saying grace. If you walk the hallways, especially before tests, you’ll see people praying,” Jones said.
Students may not be led by an adult in prayer, but are free to pray as they wish on their own or in their own groups.
As far as dressing for physical education, Jones said the Muslim students change into athletic clothes that meet their cultural standards.
“They’re putting on sweat pants, they’re putting on softball pants, some of the young ladies are changing their hijab to a more streamlined, kind of an athletic hijab. The fact is they are changing,” Jones said.
Just as people no longer dress the same to attend a church as they did 15-20 years ago, so too, how students dress for physical education has changed, he said. Gone are the uniforms of years past.
“We have to seriously ask ourselves the question in education, is it all about what they’re wearing or is it about the participation and activity?” Jones said.
Teaching Islam as part of world history is nothing new, either.
Jones received emails from the teachers saying, “World history teaches students about ‘all’ religions.”
One history teacher said in the first semester students learned about the beginning of Judaism, Christianity, Hindusim and Buddhism, recently completed studies on Native American beliefs and beliefs of the Incas and Aztecs. Now, they are studying Islam.
“It is a straightforward historical perspective, without judgment or bias,” the teacher wrote.
Another history teacher said while both Christianity and Islam are taught in the class, if a person were to look at one class or another, it may look like just Islam was being taught.
“As we move in history, Islam and Christianity will come up as topics at the same time, but so far, it has been one or the other, more often neither,” wrote the teacher.
Jones also addressed a rumor that the new building going on at the middle school will include a bathroom just for the Muslim students.
“That’s a crock. We are not doing any kind of special accommodations in the bathroom,” he said.
As for the menu, which includes a variety of foods to accommodate various diets, it includes pork nearly every day, contrary to another rumor, Jones said.
“We have a changing population and by law — and my job, as you all know, is to keep us out of court — my job is to follow the rules that are laid down to me by the government and I will do that,” Jones said.
What bothers him about people who want to “pop off” about the accommodations the school has made for students, is that those students have no voice and are innocent, Jones said.
“Kids, who through their own innocence, who have no voice in this argument at all, are taken to task for simply being born into a culture or a religion that are different than ours,” said Jones.
That’s a fight, Jones said, he’ll take on and lead the charge.
The Board members applauded Jones and added comments about their own discussions with members of the community about prayer in schools and accommodations made.
“I think what you just spoke, in my reflection, is exactly what I feel,” said Board Chair Sharon Ballou. “I think most of the School Board members are completely behind you on that.”