Observance study asked

School board weighs policy on leaving class for religious reasons

June 23, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

The Howard County Board of Education has asked for a study of religious observances in the school system before it approves a new policy that dictates when and where students can observe their religion.

After months of crafting, surveying and reviewing a new policy, board members felt there still was too much uncertainty surrounding the policy.

"I would be more comfortable if we had more time," said Sandra Erickson, the system's chief administrative and academic officer. "This is a very important decision. We want the board to have all of the information."

Added board Chairman Joshua Kaufman: "We need to find a policy that is accommodating and true to our core mission."

At the root of the debate is a proposed policy that would allow students to leave class for up to 30 minutes a week for religious observances. The proposal also would prohibit students from leaving campus for such observances.

The system's current policy does not address students' ability to leave campus.

"The current policy is silent on that," said Kaufman.

Further complicating the issue is the system's attendance policy, which marks a student absent from class if he or she misses more than 20 minutes.

On Tuesday, the board held a work session during which board members expected to get a better sense of the effects of having students leave class for religious observances. What they received were more questions than answers.

"One of the reasons we deferred it was so that we could have a better sense of what is happening in the schools before we applied a uniform standard," Kaufman said.

An exchange between school board member Courtney Watson and members of the religious observance committee summed up the confusion.

"Something doesn't seem right about the data," Watson said, after learning from an informal, end-of-the-year survey of school administrators and attendance clerks that only nine high school students in the county left campus for religious observances. "I'm wondering if we could get better data if we did this [study] in September or October."

The words of caution were enough to make up the mind of Diane Mikulis, the board's vice chairman.

"This leads us to believe that we need to stop this," she said, referring to the policy-approval process.

Caution urged

Board member Mary Kay Sigaty warned that the board should be careful

"One of the things I would like to understand is why we are changing our current policies?" Sigaty asked. "Our [new] recommendations are much more limiting. We need to be very careful. We are guarding people's First Amendment rights."

In addition to the informal survey, board members also heard several concerns from the Howard County Education Association.

Ann DeLacy, president of the union that represents 4,300 employees in the system, said her members were concerned about how teachers would be affected by students leaving class.

In particular, DeLacy asked about the impact on scheduling, required classroom hours, exams and quizzes, reports and lab work.

She also asked that the union be involved further in the decision-making process on the policy.

"Only if we do this can we insure that our staff continues to do their jobs at a high level and student achievement continues to rise while also recognizing the diversity of our educational community," DeLacy said.

Watson also addressed the workload implications for teachers.

"At what point does it become unreasonable for teachers?" she asked. "Will parents [allow their children to attend religious observances during school] if they have the opportunity or if there is a change in policy?"

Inclusive policy

Board members also were cautious about crafting a policy that would address all religions.

Kaufman, noting that all of the children who were found to have left class for religious observances are Muslim, said: "We are crafting a policy that seems to be for one religion. We want to craft a policy that encompasses all religions."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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