Gentleman's Agreement

Fine words and policies are wonderful. Unless there's a secret subtext, with a different set of dos and don'ts.

Following this, Levy met with a group of about 80 students in the sixth through 12th grades at Congregation Beth El in Missouri City. Asked how many had been requested by a teacher to participate in some sort of prayer activity in the last year, 80 percent raised their hands, he says. Asked if someone had tried to get them to convert to Christianity, and told them they were going to hell if they didn't, he says "60 to 70 percent raised their hands."

"I am a minority. I accept that," Levy says. "It's very difficult for someone who's not in the minority to understand how this feels. The incidents haven't been horrific. They are very pervasive and subtle."

He feels that especially at the middle-school level, where his son is, and in the early high school years, there's a lot of pressure on students to conform. He hopes he has equipped his son well enough to deal with that. "How many times do they resist before they go along with something? That's the nature of teenagers."

Hillary Goldstein  says the ordeal has taught her child to speak out.
Deron Neblett
Hillary Goldstein says the ordeal has taught her child to speak out.
Fort Bend Superintendent Don Hooper wants to see prayer back in schools.
Deron Neblett
Fort Bend Superintendent Don Hooper wants to see prayer back in schools.

To fight this, he is working to form a group patterned on the PBS show Not in Our Town as a method of discussing and countering any forms of discrimination going on in Fort Bend.

He insists the prayer issue is not a "Jewish" issue but a "non-Christian" one covering any Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, atheist or even Christian students who don't share the more fundamentalist beliefs of the national See You at the Pole prayer movement. He said he understands Superintendent Hooper has a mission -- Hooper has said publicly he'd like to see prayer returned to the schools -- and he understands that.

"That's why we have public schools, so I don't have to put up with that," Levy says. "Leave my kid alone."

On November 13 the Fort Bend trustees met again. This time the superintendent would provide the results of the district's investigation. A room overflowing with parents, educators and media awaited him.

To Hooper's credit, he didn't make the large crowd sit through hours of reports before getting to the main event. He read from a prepared statement and had copies distributed to the press. He explained that if any disciplinary actions were taken against district employees, according to FBISD policy, they would not be revealed publicly. He repeated, however, that the district would hold employees accountable if they violated policy.

Students are not required to obtain a written excuse from a rabbi, minister or other religious official confirming their absence from school for a religious reason, Hooper said. Students are excused from school to observe holy days. Parents are asked to submit a written request in advance, as they would for any other excused absence, he said.

"A brand-new administrator innocently gave incorrect information on that subject during freshman orientation at Austin High School," Hooper said. "We do apologize for that mistake, and the administration has taken appropriate action to ensure that sort of mistake does not occur again."

As for the calls home on Yom Kippur to the Austin Parkway Elementary students, Hooper apologized that this offended two sets of Jewish parents. He said, however, that the investigation showed no improper motive for the calls; school personnel hadn't received any advance notice the students wouldn't be there and wanted to check on them, as they do with all absent students.

Investigators couldn't substantiate the allegation that an employee at First Colony Middle School had a religious screen-saver message, Hooper said. Staff members were told by their principal that they were not to promote religion in school by displaying screen savers or other religious items.

Hooper resolutely waded on into the next, definitely grayer area. According to the "Equal Access Act" developed by FBISD's school board, personnel are prohibited from promoting, leading or participating in the meetings of student groups unrelated to the curriculum, such as a See You at the Pole rally. But it does not keep them from attending and observing such activities. Students can announce such meetings in school with the permission of the principal as long as every other campus student group has the same opportunity. Some principals allow announcements; others don't.

Student posters, even those with crosses, are permitted in Fort Bend schools. As long as the posters do not contain profanity, hateful or violent messages or are likely to incite a disturbance on campus or to violate any laws, they are A-OK. But to make sure that "administrators are aware of what is and is not appropriate for display in a public school," school attorney Bernadette Gonzalez and longtime outside legal counsel David Feldman will develop written guidelines and training for administrators.

The district was unable to substantiate "the very serious concern that office personnel at one middle school displayed a poster with a cross," Hooper said. "If that occurred, it was clearly wrong." What the investigation determined was that a student's poster was displayed for a short time near the attendance office before being removed by the principal, he said.

The district verified that PA announcements were made about See You at the Pole at Austin, Dulles, Clements High School and Garcia. It did not find the announcements had been made at First Colony or Quail Valley. Again, attorneys Gonzalez and Feldman will be working on written guidelines and targeted training here. And while it was verified that school personnel attended the prayer at the pole, it was not found that they actively participated. "Legal counsel has recommended that an administrator be assigned to attend and observe such events in the future in order to ensure district employees do not violate the law," Hooper said. What an assignment.

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