Powell County Superintendent Michael Tate said Wednesday that he is reviewing policies regarding a morning religious assembly at Stanton Elementary School and monitoring student safety following a controversy in which a 10-year-old atheist said he was bullied when he did not attend.
Heather Estes recently said her son, fifth-grader Devin Estes, was bullied by other students at his public elementary school in Powell County and has been given a hard time by teachers because he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t attend a morning religious service at the school called the Upper Room. Her concerns have led to a social media controversy.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Superintendent Tate declined to comment on a TV report that school district officials had suspended the morning Upper Room service. But he confirmed information in a Dec. 1 letter to families from Stanton Elementary Principal James Crase that the school had received threatening comments last week through Facebook and phone calls, and he had asked for police presence on school grounds.
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the Kentucky ACLU, previously told the Herald-Leader he thinks the morning program violates the U.S. Constitution.
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“I’m not saying we’ve done anything wrong, or that we’ve done anything right at this time,” Tate said. “We’re just reviewing everything and making ... sure things are done properly.”
Tate said he was looking at state, local and national policies.
On the social media threats, Tate said, “We’re taking those very seriously; we’re working with law enforcement.”
At Stanton Elementary, school doors open at 7:30 a.m., and school starts at 8:10 a.m, Estes previously said. After breakfast is served at school and before classes begin, many students go to the gymnasium in the morning for the program, where a religious song is played and students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Estes’ son Devin and a handful of other students choose to stay behind in the cafeteria during the service, Estes said earlier.
Estes, an attorney for the state department of Public Advocacy, who represents indigent defendants in criminal cases, previously told the Herald-Leader that when she attended the school assembly recently, Christian music was playing.
“All the children sing along with it. They might do a little Bible verse or something, They did the Pledge of Allegiance. They start their day with some inspirational words. It’s not just the Upper Room that is the problem. It’s also that the teachers keep this going throughout the day.” She said one teacher plays religious pop and country music for her students throughout the day and that one teacher criticized atheists in her son’s presence. Another teacher dismissed her son’s request to tell the principal he was being bullied, she said.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they bully me because I’m not religious or Christian,” Devin, 10, told the Herald-Leader on Sunday. “Because I don’t bully them. I’m fine with them being Christian. But for some reason, they are not fine with me being atheist.”
Estes on Wednesday referred questions to her attorney. Geoffrey Blackwell, who counsels a group called American Atheists Inc,, said he had not heard whether the school district had suspended the service.
“We are in the process of determining what her legal remedies are,” Blackwell said.