Norfolk, VA--The ACLU of Virginia has asked the Superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools to investigate more thoroughly claims that the Principal of Oakwood Elementary School pressured students to participate in religious exercises in school, and to consider taking disciplinary action.
The ACLU originally wrote to Superintendent Jones on March 30, after learning of reports that Oakwood Principal Sheila Holas had brought her minister to school to offer sermons and organized students to pray before taking SOLs. Jones told the ACLU that he would be conducting a "climate study" of the school that would include an examination of the allegations.
Another ACLU letter, sent on May 21, responded to the Executive Summary of the climate study. Noting that the study appeared to verify the original accusations but otherwise contains little new information, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg requested that Jones launch a more thorough investigation. Glenberg also asked Jones if he has taken, or plans to take, any disciplinary action against Holas.
"The Supreme Court has visited over and over again the issue of religious activities in public schools because school officials must be made to understand that they must protect the religious rights of every student while never using the authority of their position to organize or pressure students to engage in religious activities," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
Since the ACLU inquired about the religious violations, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Holas has been suspended from her duties while Jones investigates a separate, but possibly related, allegation that a school official had distributed plastic fetus dolls to students at the school.
"The key to protecting religious liberty in public schools is the presence of trained professionals at the top to make sure the rules are followed," said Willis. "When the principal becomes the rule breaker, then the religious rights of students are seriously jeopardized."
"The climate study is disappointingly sparse," added Willis, "but it does verify our suspicions that constitutional violations occurred at Oakwood Elementary. The questions that remain are, how egregious were those violations, and what does the superintendent intend to do about them?"
A copy of the ACLU's May 21st letter to Superintendent Jones is available at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/05-21-10.pdf. A copy of the ACLU's March 30th letter to Superintendent Jones is available at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/03-30-10.pdf.
CONTACT: Kent Willis, 804-644-8022