UPDATED MARCH 10 at 2:37 p.m. ET
Parents of a second-grade student at North Hill Elementary School in Des Moines, Washington, have accused officials at the school of repeatedly penalizing their daughter for talking with her classmates about Jesus on the playground, including sending her to the principal’s office “no less than 10 times since" the fist of the year.
“We were astonished when we were first contacted by a second-grade student’s parents who said their little girl had been sent to the principal’s office at North Hill Elementary School no less than 10 times since January 1st for witnessing to classmates on the playground,” Christina Compagnone, an associate counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the family, said in a recent release.
“Not only were they scolding her for talking about Jesus to her classmates outside of instruction time, but they were stopping her at the entrance to the school every morning to inspect her backpack and remove any Christian tracts!” Compagnone added.
The girl’s mother reportedly confronted the principal of the school over the removal of the tracts from her daughter’s backpack and was told that her daughter wasn't allowed to share tracts or crosses at school because the activity is “upsetting parents.”
Catherine Carbone-Rogers, chief communications officer at Highline Public Schools, said in an email to The Christian Post that the school’s Principal Kimberly Jones made “good faith efforts to address this delicate situation.”
The student, she said. had raised concerns that her classmates “will go to hell because they do not listen to her, along with her concern about the fate of her own soul if she cannot help them — to the point of crying from grief.”
Carbone-Rogers added that the student “was observed chasing another student to share scripture with them, standing on a picnic table shouting to students ‘Be saved or you are going to hell!” and getting into a disagreement with another student over her proselytizing.”
After receiving a complaint from a parent whose child had received a “religious pamphlet” from the student, she was asked to “cease distributing religious materials and items to other students.”
Following that incident, her school bag was searched “on one occasion” by faculty “to confirm she had no materials to distribute at that time," said Carbone-Rogers who told CP that the student consented to her bag being searched.
As part of the district’s response, administrators and the principal spoke to the student and her parents, she added, explaining that the student was told that it’s “unsafe to climb onto tables (regardless of the purpose of the climbing), not threatening other students that they are going to hell, and making sure other students want to speak with her when she proselytizes to them.”
After the parents contacted ACLJ, the organization reached out to the school and explained that the second grader’s witnessing to her classmates on the playground is protected by the First Amendment.
The principal allegedly responded by doubling down on their decision against the second grader, insisting that “it is school policy that students cannot distribute materials that ‘Cause a disruption or interfere with school activities,’” according to ACLJ.
“Christian tracts were being treated as contraband, as if speaking about Jesus were an illicit drug,” Compagnone said.
She added that the Highline School District has a Freedom of Expression policy that only prohibits the distribution of written materials that cause a disruption of school activities “in an assembly or classroom setting” and doesn’t apply to the playground.
Under the law, Compagnone added: “Students are free to express their religious views while at school, which includes sharing Bibles, Christian tracts, and crosses.”
“The actions of the school officials were particularly egregious in this case because they not only violated this student’s rights, but also publicly humiliated her,” Compagnone further explained. “They will not get away with this. The ACLJ will ensure that this little girl’s religious liberties are respected once and for all. We recently sent a Demand Letter to the school; and if the school does not take immediate corrective action, we are ready to file in court if necessary.”
In her email to CP, Carbone-Rogers added: “As reflected in its policies and procedures, the Highline Public Schools agrees with the core principles of governmental neutrality to religion, avoidance of discrimination against religious viewpoints, and allowing students to express themselves at school, including potentially through the distribution of written materials. At the same time, we must sometimes restrict student expression to avoid undue interference or disturbance — especially at the elementary school level."
Despite concerns raised by some parents, Carbone-Rogers said the school will “allow [the student] to distribute materials at school going forward, including religious materials. But this will be subject to certain neutral limitations, which will apply equally to [her] and any other students distributing materials at the school, to prevent undue interference or disturbance and to respect the rights of all students.”
The North Hill Elementary School case comes at the same time that the Dhillon Law Group filed a 206-page lawsuit against Mater Academy, a public charter school in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, for allegedly telling 14-year-old student, Nicolas Ortiz, to stop taking his Bible to school after he was repeatedly attacked and bullied by students and teachers alike for his faith.
“It’s bad enough that the school has done nothing to stop the bullying from his peers, but have gone as far as joining in on targeting Mr. Ortiz for simply practicing his faith. This blatant violation of his first amendment rights is another example of how extreme so many in our education system have become, and why Dhillon Law Group is coming to Mr. Ortiz’s defense.”