Public School System Partners with Religious Leaders September 28, 2010

Public School System Partners with Religious Leaders

Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia are having meetings with religious leaders. One already took place and another is happening next month:

Henrico County Public Schools will host two upcoming breakfast meetings for local faith-based leaders. Superintendent Dr. Patrick Russo will welcome the religious leaders and directly encourage their organizations to partner with Henrico County Public Schools.

Henrico County Public Schools plans to work closely with a growing number of local faith-based organizations to take the school division to the next level of greatness. Organizations can serve in the areas of volunteerism, mentorships, incentive programs, school events, goods, and monetary service.

During the breakfasts, guests will have the opportunity to hear from religious leaders and principals who currently partner together.

Let’s says that evangelism isn’t one of the goals here.

One reader admits:

I am not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I want religion completely out of my kids’ school. On the other hand, I don’t mind if they want to donate volunteers and goods, as long as we don’t owe them anything for it.

I don’t know anything about this district. But it sounds like a well-intentioned, but potentially dangerous plan. While the religious leaders may have the best of intentions, it’s all too easy for proselytizing to sneak in. If they want to volunteer or give money, I don’t mind. But the mentorships and incentive programs? I’d want more information…

Instead of posting something a few days ago, I contacted Mychael Dickerson, the executive director of communications and community outreach for the district, for an explanation of how they know that no church/state violations will occur and which faiths are represented in the mix.

This is what he told me (via email):

Thanks for your email and opportunity to respond to your concerns. I want to assure you that there is no problem or violation of church and state with the breakfasts we are holding with Faith Based Leaders. We sent invitations to all the churches, mosques, temples listed and that we could find. We also reached out to the interfaith organizations to try to reach out as much as possible. We are asking these community members to look for opportunities to tutor, volunteer and to simply partner with our schools. We do the same for the business community and anyone else who would like to help us provide the best education possible for our kids. We do a background check on all volunteers and community partners, including those in the faith based community, and we make them go through an orientation. The orientation with the faith based partners, includes explaining that they cannot proselytize or recruit for membership to their churches. In short, I hope this helps to answer your questions and alleviates any concerns about a violation of the original intent of church and state.

All the best,

I still see no attempt to reach out to local Humanist leaders and I let him know that. But it does sound like the district has taken steps to prevent proselytization.

How would you handle this situation from this point forward?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chris

    That covers Richmond. Simple, have the Richmond atheist group and/or other freethinker and humanists organizations show up and demand a seat at the table and full participation. If the county complains or excludes them, see you in court.

  • Peregrine

    I don’t think you need to go so far as to demand a seat at the table. But you could step forward and offer the assistance of secular organizations in these sorts of endeavors. Education is a topic that atheists tend to be particularly interested in, and any opportunity to help with something like this is right up our alley. A gentle reminder that, hey, we’re here too, if you need us. Reach out to them, and hopefully, before long, they’ll reach back. Be proactive, not reactive.

  • Franco

    This Dickerson fellow sounds very sincere. It’s a shame he’s about to get a cold dose of reality.

  • Kahomono

    I graduated from Douglas S Freeman HS in Henrico County, VA in 1974. Team name “Rebels,” school song “Dixie”.

    We sued, unsuccessfully, to get the prayers removed from our graduation. The school’s rationale, of course was that they invited a minister AND a rabbi. Sounds like a bad joke, huh?

    They are never NOT trying to entangle religion with the conduct of public education.

    @Chris: City of Richmond and Henrico County are separate districts, though adjacent.

  • That caveat about not proselytizing carries a very strong whiff of “wink wink nudge nudge knowwhatimean.” In other words, they may be SAYING it out loud, but in reality, we all KNOW what the religious folks will actually DO once they have access to children.

    I honestly don’t care about whatever good intentions might be behind this. Only a complete moron would assume no church will attempt to use this program to missionize. The same is true of religion professor Stephen Prothero and his plan to include “Bible as literature” classes in public schools. He personally may not intend for them to be used to proselytize … but I find it impossible to believe he’s so stupid as not to know this would happen.

    Of course they all know what this will lead to. They just don’t care that it’s not right, and not legal.

  • SecularLez

    Yeah, I noticed that they didn’t include Humanist groups or Freethinker groups.

    I do NOT like this one bit.
    Sure the groups are TOLD they cannot proselytize but trust me, THEY WILL and it’s a shame none of the kids will report their butts.

  • There will be an anti-proselytizing policy in place. Hence, it will not happen, in much the same way as the US Army never conducts gay witch hunts because it’s not their policy.

  • Well well well…
    Guess where my kids go to school?
    Henrico County public schools.

    Guess where they will go to high school?
    Douglas S Freeman.

    I’ll be paying attention to this.

  • Meredith

    Guess where my kids go to school?
    Henrico County public schools.

    Mine, too. I caught the quick article about this and immediately sent it on to Hemant. I still am not sure how I feel. But I agree with you, I will be keeping an eye on this.

  • frank

    If the churches want to donate money or school supplies of course that’s fine. The rest of these things I would want to know a lot more about exactly what they entail, but I would be very suspicious there. I can’t imagine, for example, what kind of a “school event” a church could organize without violating the constitution.

    The larger social concern here I think is that this indicates that the public schools in this county are not getting all of the resources they need from tax dollars. Perhaps if that were changed the school system would not feel the need to approach churches.

  • Alex

    Why can’t people just step up and help or volunteer as an individual instead having to represent some religious institution.

  • Richard Wade

    Lawyers, start your engines.

    Whether the school district and Mychael Dickerson are sincere or not, proselytizing and recruiting are going to be done. With few exceptions, religious groups don’t give a “Quid” like this without a “Pro Quo.” The secular parents should get their lawsuits written up ahead of time, just leaving blank the particular names and dates.

    The orientation with the faith based partners, includes explaining that they cannot proselytize or recruit for membership to their churches.

    It would be very valuable to either record or get a transcript of that part of the orientation, to see if it’s milquetoast or clear and strong. Either way, it can be used to prove that they were fully aware that they were not supposed to proselytize or recruit, so they can’t try to mitigate their culpability as having been “unaware they were doing anything wrong,” or “poorly advised.”

  • 1. Students should receive a heads up on the legal issue with school volunteers proselytizing, and there should be an easy means of report violations for purposes of monitoring and prevention – not so much for punishing any individuals or organizations too harshly. It could be as simply as a hotline, email address or office form and a website or something that allows public access to summary data.

    2. The district should stop targeting religious organizations specifically. Best to open it up more broadly and never have “faith only” meetings, etc.

  • In England with our established church the vicar would be invited into to talk to the entire school. Any help that they offer would be integrated within the daily life of the school.

    Honestly you’ve got it good. Don’t let them get so much as a toenail through the door.

  • If I can work it into my schedule, I’ll show up as a concerned parent and videotape the meeting and publish any “interesting” parts on YouTube.

  • Rollingforest

    I live two counties away from Henrico in the more rural and more conservative county of King William (To show you what type of county King William is, it recently made a special point of reinstating prayer at the beginning of every Board of Supervisor meeting). If they are doing this in Henrico, it’s only a matter of time before they do it all over the area. We should watch this carefully.

  • If only people were more willing to fund their schools by agreeing to pay higher property taxes, this sort of slippery-slope mechanism of seeking extra funding wouldn’t be necessary.

    In this economic climate, it is especially clear that most people expect superb government services without having to pay for them. Hopefully, if we can change this mindset, then schools won’t need to turn cap-in-hand to religious institutions for support.

  • I wouldn’t be too concerned about this. If evidence arose that organizations or individuals were attempting to proselytize, then I would take firm and immediate action, but if not, why deny the students a valuable resource? Many might jump at the chance to work alongside one of these organizations and it would be a shame to prevent them from accessing the opportunity. If there are Humanist groups of sufficient size and resources near which could also participate, fantastic.

  • muggle

    No, no, and no! Hoverfrog’s right. Don’t let them get a toenail in the door. As Alex said, why aren’t they just doing it as individuals. Reaching out to an organization like that has an ulterior motive and that motive is plain and simple to have a large religious influence in the school.

    Jeff P if you do You Tube, please link here. Keep us posted.

    What this seems to me is a back door way of sneaking religion in. Hopefully, they’ll obey the letter of the law so as not to be nailed but even with that, it’s an obvious recruitment specifically of the religious and is a rather gray area. They’re CYA’ing so you can’t call them on it because they know they can’t blatantly recruit only religious people. But, seriously, how many efforts will be made to secular community? And, by secular community, I don’t mean just freethinkers but businesses etc. though I think they also recruit “businesses” by going to business people they know to be religious so they can look like they aren’t just asking houses of worship and religious groups.

  • Reaching out to an organization like that has an ulterior motive and that motive is plain and simple to have a large religious influence in the school.

    What’s your evidence for this?

  • Alan E.

    It should be noted that Henrico was one of the earlier counties to try out a student laptop program. They later sold them to Henrico residents, but that ended up as a stampede (was all over the news for a couple days).

    The city of Richmond is considered it’s own country and school district. There are only two counties that surround Richmond, Chesterfield to the south of the James River and Henrico to the north. It’s been 4 years since I’ve lived there, but Henrico was a very diverse county, ranging from urban at the edges of Richmond, to suburban, to more rural at the edges. The entire area continues to spread out with urban sprawl, though. There are certainly more conservatives than liberals. Good ol’ boy networks are still the most influential when it comes to the school systems. Don’t be surprised if there are other meetings not discussed with the public.

    On a random note, Henrico has my favorite intersection. When I would give directions to my dad’s house, you had to take Nuckles to Cox.

  • Rich Wilson

    I want to assure you that there is no problem

    That he would assert this as a fact is a problem in and of itself.
    To me it indicates a lack of understanding of the problem. He’s got it half right with the ‘no proselytizing’, but he’s got it wrong in thinking he can get by with just inviting all the religious groups he can think of. Are there any Wiccan groups in the area? How about Satanists? Church of Scientology? They’d love to help.

  • SecularLez

    Thank you Frank, I wanted to bring this up as well:
    The larger social concern here I think is that this indicates that the public schools in this county are not getting all of the resources they need from tax dollars. Perhaps if that were changed the school system would not feel the need to approach churches.

    +10 for you.

  • The larger social concern here I think is that this indicates that the public schools in this county are not getting all of the resources they need from tax dollars. Perhaps if that were changed the school system would not feel the need to approach churches.

    Yes, but even if they had no need to do so, it doesn’t seem to me entirely unreasonable to do so. Organizations other than the state often have valuable things to offer schools and schoolchildren. It seems to me highly responsible, with the proper safeguards in place, to harness those resources for the benefit of the students. This is very common practice in many other countries.

  • Vincent

    It’s true that schools are underfunded, and this would provide an opportunity to supplement without raising taxes. However, religious organizations proselytize and recruit members. That may not be their only purpose, but it is the foundation on which they are built. To allow them as an organization to be involved with our schools is a direct violation of the separation of church and state because of their edict of recruitment. If they want to donate money to schools, fine, but I don’t want religious nuts having access to young impressionable minds while they are in a place of learning.

    Side note about the whole “Bible as Literature” class, I say if they want to include that in public schools, they should also make a class for all other religious books, including the Satanic Verses. If that is not acceptable to those school districts, then they are obviously not teaching the literature, but the religion, and should be denied the right to do so.

  • Russell

    It’d be nice if, when they found they were lacking money, they didn’t immediately open the yellow pages to the Religious section to start shaking their cup. I suspect there are plenty of groups that would be willing to help the schools that don’t get listed alongside the churches.

    I lived in Henrico for a while before moving into the city proper. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens.

  • keddaw

    We do a background check on all volunteers and community partners, especially those in the faith based community,

    Fixed it for you.

  • muggle

    Uh, James, seems self-evident. A call for help in and of itself would have gone to the community at large, not just to religious leaders. That it went to religious leaders is indicative of something. Why not hold a press conference asking for invidiuals to volunteer? Why not send home fliers with the kiddies asking parents if they could or if they knew anyone who could? This is aimed where it’s aimed for a reason.

  • erica

    I went to middle school in this district — At George H Moody Middle School, for the IB programme. I went off to prep school and an ivy league after that (the majority of the students went to henrico high to finish IB, or to the governor’s school in richmond) and I can honestly say, I’ve never been in such a diverse group since Moody Middle. One of my best friends was from Egypt, and that was the first time I learned about Ramadan. I went to about 20 bar/bat mitzvahs and hung out at the JCC, and I wasn’t Jewish (it also took me till college to realize that not everyone grows up in a jewish neighborhood). I honestly don’t think there’s any malice in meeting with the religious leaders. But I do think that the county has a serious socio-economic problem. It’s a large county, with the west side upper class and upper middle class, and only growing richer — and they’ve opened up several new schools in recent years there. The East side is lower-middle-class, and largely ignored. It’s next to the airport. It’s grimy. It might as well be the city of Richmond. So that’s the real problem of the school district — inequality, not religion.

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