Sensitivity in Teaching

October 26, 2000

Source: The New York Times

On October 26, 2000, The New York Times reported that "With children everywhere discussing the costumes and treats they expected for Halloween, it was natural enough that a teacher at Olinda Elementary School would assign her students to read a book themed to the holiday. But then a parent objected that Halloween was offensive to people of her faith. The teacher turned to her principal, Brenda Clark, who resolved the problem by suggesting the child be assigned a different book. That was the right solution, according to an expert on the role of religion in public schools. The expert, Wayne Jacobson, gave a two-day seminar for Orange County educators this week on how to resolve delicate religious issues on campus. And from the number of questions, it was clear that the topic is coming up at schools throughout the county. The Jewish teacher who wondered what to do about the student who wrote 'Jesus saves' on his blackboard. The board member who several years ago proposed posting the Ten Commandments at each campus. The teacher who collected information about students' religions. Clark had successfully resolved the Halloween complaint. Now she had another question: What should she do when a student who attends Clark's church comes up to her at school and asks her questions about Sunday's sermon? Could Clark be accused of proselytizing if she answers the child's questions? Such discussions are fine, Jacobson said, as long as they are not in front of other students and the student and the principal don't try to recruit others to attend the church. 'There is a lot of confusion about what can be talked about in school,' said Jacobson, a former evangelical pastor who now offers mediation to school districts facing conflict over religious issues. 'No one has trained educators about religious liberty laws.' Though he identifies himself as a conservative Christian, Jacobson said his goal is to help parents and teachers on both sides of the issue understand and adhere to the religious freedoms of the 1st Amendment. He uses a technique he calls 'common ground thinking' to help groups form a consensus on policy even when they disagree on issues or values. 'I think this is the kind of thing that people need to hear,' said John Dean, Orange County's superintendent of schools. The meeting was held at the county Department of Education offices in Costa Mesa. Jeanne Flint, who serves on the Irvine school board, said she hoped to acquire 'the tools to maneuver the waters of politics and religion without blowing up.'"