Gentleman's Agreement

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

Two years ago Hillary Goldstein came to Houston direct from Queens, New York. In her somewhat larger-than-life persona, Goldstein embraced the Lone Star State. Husband Ira got cowboy boots. She bought a pickup truck. This was the American dream, Texas-style, with all of its history, open spaces and friendly people. The plan was to be in the apartment for six months, then move into a nearby house. Life was good.

Then came the afternoon, shortly after arrival, when six-year-old Alexa got off her school bus telling her mom she'd had a really, really bad day. Okay, her mom said. How bad can a first-grader's day be, after all. What happened?

Well, her classmates didn't want to play with her anymore.

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.

Why?

"They told me they can't be friends with me. I'm a murderer. I killed Christ," Alexa told her mom.

Ka-boom, Goldstein became a heat-seeking missile looking to take no prisoners. Within moments she was at the school looking for the principal, who had already gone for the day. Readjusting her sights, she made her way to her daughter's teacher. Almost incredulously, Goldstein repeated what her daughter, one of only two Jews in her Stafford Municipal School District elementary school, had told her. Whereupon the teacher responded:

"Welcome to the Bible Belt."

Surprisingly enough, Hillary Goldstein did not deck her.


Actually, things got worked out in the Stafford district fairly quickly once the principal got involved, Goldstein says. The principal spoke to the parents, she apologized to Goldstein's family, and it was the principal's idea to include recognition of Hanukkah and Kwanza in that year's Christmas program celebrations. Things settled down.

Then the Goldsteins moved into their house, which brought them into the Fort Bend Independent School District, a district they'd chosen after much research. Seeing the Fort Bend demographics, the Goldsteins thought that this would be the best place for their daughter -- respected schools with high test scores and a diverse student body. Hillary Goldstein assumed that with the increased diversity, with the increased numbers of different kinds of people, would come more tolerance and understanding. She was wrong.

On October 23 Hillary Goldstein and Frank Levy, another Fort Bend school parent, stood up before the board of trustees of FBISD and its superintendent, Don Hooper, a self-avowed devout Christian, and told them that something rotten was going on in one of the fastest-growing school districts in the country. Levy said that a Fort Bend school board vote to support Santa Fe ISD in its relentless quest to officially reinstall school prayer "continues to resonate negatively in the district's non-Christian community." They said the vote showed an insensitivity to anyone who wasn't a Christian and made it clear that certain religious beliefs were to be preferred. At the time the February 28 vote was taken, several Jewish students attended the board meeting, asking that the district not take the action it did. To Goldstein, to Levy and to many others, the fact that these students' feelings were discounted in the 4-2 vote was harsh and bitter.

What seems to be at issue here, Goldstein and Levy told the board, is that there may be a perfectly fine "official" policy carefully adhering to the law of the land and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, but what is actually happening in Fort Bend is some sort of tacit understanding that if the line between church and state is crossed, no notice will be taken of the transgressors.

"All of us have our code words," Levy says. "There's just a message that travels in the back channels. They weren't in any jeopardy."

Goldstein and Levy came complete with a list of specific alleged transgressions, most of them having to do with posters with crucifixes on them in the hallways at Dulles, Quail Valley and First Colony middle schools. They also cited teachers and/or students going on the public address systems to promote the See You at the Pole prayer rallies in September at Dulles, First Colony and Garcia middle schools, as well as at Clements and Austin high schools. At some schools, teachers participated in the prayer rallies. At First Colony, a teacher's classroom screen saver displayed the words "Jesus Christ" for all students to see, they said.

At Austin Parkway Elementary, the school nurse called Jewish parents on Yom Kippur to ask where their children were, Levy said.

The most egregious case was at Austin High School. The principal required Jewish students to get a note from their rabbi saying that they had attended religious services on Yom Kippur. "Will the same note be required for all Christian students when they are away from school for Christmas, Easter or Good Friday?" Goldstein asked.


Levy, whose son attends middle school in FBISD, repeatedly has challenged the district. On National Prayer Day last spring, Levy says, members of the Gideon Society were allowed to come on school property and pass out Bibles. District officials, he says, insisted the Gideons were in compliance with FBISD policies and were staying on public property next to the schools. "In at least two schools, they were standing in the car lines," Levy says with a laugh.

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."

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.


If Rabbi Avi Schulman has one regret, it's that he signed excuses for two ninth-graders who rushed up to him after religious school at Congregation Beth El, saying they had to have them for school the next day. "I agreed to write a note, albeit with great reservations," Schulman says. "I felt very disturbed that their principal was even requesting something like this. I regret in hindsight that I didn't add a note that this wasn't needed."

Schulman, in his sixth year at the 315-family Congregation Beth El, credits Goldstein and Levy with presenting what he calls "communal concerns" to the Fort Bend trustees. He has seen progress by the district, which he says is due in no small part to "agitation on the part of the Jewish community."

Goldstein says that when she first came to Fort Bend and started raising questions, some people who'd lived here a long time urged her not to rock the boat. Now, she says, many people have told her they've accepted things as they were, but they recognize that this is wrong.

"This is not just persecution of the Jews, but of anyone who doesn't conform," she says.

As a Jew, she says, she has a responsibility to speak up when she sees any wrongs. And if she and others don't speak up, it'll just be the same old same old. Her daughter has learned that lesson at a young age. "She's a toughie. She's not a little wuss. She'll tell them she's Jewish," her mother says proudly.

There's a fine line between being a role model and a steamroller. Open your yearbook, see a full page devoted to See You at the Pole -- what does that tell you about the "right" things to do? Know that your teacher is one of the co-sponsors of the school prayer club -- are you going to speak up about your disagreement with that, thereby drawing what's sure to be negative attention to yourself? Most adults wouldn't. As Goldstein puts it: "Kids don't want the grief."

And let's be very clear about this. This isn't just an issue of Jews versus Christians, although the Jews have been taking it in the keister lately in Fort Bend. On a larger scale, this is all about elevating a certain kind of Christianity that, like the Crusades of old, doesn't care who it tramples while on its holy march to glory. Teachers bending the rules only encourage students to do the same, only encourage them to adopt the same type of judgmental, self-righteous, so-called right way that can only find others wanting.

When Superintendent Hooper had finished reading out his statement, half the room emptied. A teacher who'd just gone up to the podium to discuss her education program protested lightheartedly, "Oh, and I thought all you people were here to hear about the positive things we're doing."

Absolutely, in the best of all possible worlds, that's what a packed-to-overflowing school board meeting should be for: to hear of the great achievements, the successes, the visions for the future.

Instead, we were there because some teachers and students persist in circumventing the law, apparently believing their school district allows, perhaps encourages, them to do this. No good citizenship awards for these folks.

If educators feel a call to witness to the Lord as they teach, there is a special place for them. It's called parochial school. These places are open to kids too, by the way.

But if you want to teach in public school, if you want to go to public school, then leave the evangelizing at the door. Sure, pray to God -- silently -- all you want. But keep it right there, right between you and your God. It's one of those A, B conversations. And maybe all the rest of us can see our way out of this mess.

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