SIDNEY — A letter received from the ACLU of Ohio didn’t come as a big surprise to Sidney City Schools Superintendent John Scheu. The letter accuses the high school of violating its students’ First Amendment Rights on National Walkout Day, March 14.
“I had already received a letter from Freedom from Religion Foundation citing the fact we had payer in the school,” said Scheu, who has been fielding phone calls and emails from many national media outlets concerning the letter.
“I told them (Freedom from Religion Foundation) in a letter, there were will be no more of that (prayer),” said Scheu. “If we have another assembly, there will be no prayer. When we had this one (March 14), I thought it was going to be a moment of silence, instead it turned into a prayer.”
But Scheu said there were many film clips and photographs from around the United States of prayers being said during the walkout.
The ACLU, in its letter, said the school held a “mandatory school-sponsored prayer ceremony.”
In a press release from the ACLU, the organization states, “The Superintendent, together with a Methodist religious official and the county sheriff, forced his students to gather in Christian prayer in the school gym. This intimidation and coercion violates the students’ First Amendment rights.”
“Our constitution is incredibly clear on this: public schools may not impose religious views on their students,” said ACLU of Ohio staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham. “This is precisely what Sidney School officials did on March 14 when – as students attempted to peacefully express their beliefs about a political issue – the school forced students to instead pray about it. Not only does this suppress students’ free expression, it intimidates and marginalizes minority-religion students in a space where they should feel safe.”
Scheu disputes some of the information in the letter he received.
“There’s a lot of inconsistencies in the letter they sent me,” said Scheu. “The high school principal met with 24 student government leaders from the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes a month before the walkout. He presented options that would be meaningful to everyone.
“They could do a memorial service during the 17-minute walkout time, but it was going to be inside the building because we were concerned for the students’ safety,” said Scheu.
A week later, said Scheu, the students told the school’s administration they wanted to show two films about the shootings — One from ABC and the other from CNN.
“I told the principal we could do an assembly at the end of the day with myself and the sheriff to talk about the security measures we have in place,” said Scheu. “And we’d have a question and answer session.”
According to the ACLU press release, “Sidney High School planned its assembly to occur at the time the National School Walkout was scheduled, and posted teachers to block every exit of the building so that students were confined. According to news reports, the invited reverend told students there were ‘spiritual issues’ behind school shootings and led them in Christian prayer.”
Scheu also responded to the ACLU’s statement that all the school doors were blocked with teachers.
“There was absolutely no preventing students from leaving school during this time. The only armed staff member, SRO (School Resource Officer) Scott Atwood, was stationed at the main doors along with the high school principal. (At) Four of 35 other entrance doors we had teachers (unarmed) at to direct any students walking out of the building to go to the main doors where they would be given a choice of reporting to the gym to partake in any memorial service, time of mourning, etc. that they wanted to or if they left the building they would receive a detention. There were no students who tried to walk out the doors,” said Scheu.
The ACLU, in its release, continued, Sidney Schools was recently profiled in national news for its aggressive investment in guns and ammunition to arm both its teachers and hired uniformed guards. The ACLU says the militarization of the schoolhouse has discriminatory application against children of color and kids with disabilities.
“Endangering students of color, ostracizing minority religion students, and silencing student speech does not make a learning environment safe,” said Bonham.
The ACLU of Ohio will monitor the district’s compliance with the constitution in connection with future student First Amendment activity at school. A second round of planned walkouts is scheduled nationwide on April 20.
Scheu said no student has contacted the administration about doing a walkout on April 20, which is the 20th anniversary of the Columbine School shooting.
“There are accountability issues here. What if a student is outside and is hit by a car? Who’s responsible? Or the student leaves and doesn’t come back into school. We’re not going to give some nut the opportunity to do whatever he wants to to our students,” said Scheu.
“The students have a right to express their mourning,” said Scheu. “They (ACLU) don’t like that we’ve chosen to do it in the school building.”
Prior to the March 14 walkout, ACLU Executive Director J. Bennett Guess sent an open letter to superintendents, teachers, and principals across the state, encouraging the school officials not to punish students who chose to participate in the scheduled walkouts, said Celina Coming, ACLU Ohio communications manager.
“Multiple people contacted our office with complaints about the assemblies that occurred that day at Sidney High School,” said Coming.
It is not known if any other school districts in Ohio received a similar letter to the one sent to Scheu.
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