Harassment of Atheist Students at School

From the Office of Blair Scott
Alabama State Director, American Atheists, Inc.
bscott@atheists.org http://www.atheists.org/al/

March 12, 2007

Report on discrimination of atheist child at Riverton Middle School, Huntsville, Alabama.

My daughter had been informing me of small incidents at the school regarding religious infringement, especially concerning a group called “First Priority” (www.fpoa.org). First Priority was handing out fliers to students and at one point a nurse on the school’s staff confronted my daughter in the hallway before class wanting to know why she was not in the library (where FP is held before school starts).

In addition, she told me that some of the kids were giving her a hard time about her atheism. She said most of it was curiosity, but that some of it was clearly taunting. Most of this we brushed off as innocent childhood bantering.

On February 23rd, my daughter returned from school visibly upset. She told me that the teasing and taunting was getting worse and that it was now occurring in the classroom in addition to the hallways. She relayed two disturbing incidents. In one of the classrooms, with the teacher present, five students began harassing my daughter about her atheism and telling her she was going to Hell. The teacher made no effort to stop the harassment and later advised the principal that she had no idea it was going on.

The second incident involved multiple students that surrounded my daughter and refused to let her go. They began singing “Jesus loves you” to her and telling her she was going to Hell and badgering her about not believing in god. Encircling my daughter was clearly an aggressive and threatening move. The kids were now singing “Jesus love you” every time they saw her in the hallway.

My daughter had tried to tackle the problem on her own, but she now realized it was getting out of hand and she told me everything. I sat down that night and wrote a letter to the principal, assistant principal, student counselors, and Madison County School Board, but did not send it out. My daughter told me the next day that she had talked to one of the counselors and that the counselor told her she had every right to believe or not believe in whatever she wanted and that the students were wrong. The counselor told my daughter that she would talk to any student that my daughter identified.

I called the counselor and talked to her on the phone for about 30 minutes. After the phone call, I decided to remove the Madison County School Board from my letter and give the school a chance to solve the problem on its own. My conversation with the student counselor went very well and she reassured me that such behavior would not be tolerated.

I sent the email on February 27th at 1700 (see Enclosure 1). I received an immediate email from Mrs. Stone, the student counselor that my daughter had been talking to. Mrs. Stone again reassured me that the necessary steps were being taken.

On February 28th at 0750 I received an email from Mr. Medlen, the school’s principal. Mr. Medlen advised, “This type of behavior will not be tolerated at Riverton Middle School. […] Please be assured that this matter will be handled today.”

Later that afternoon I received an email from Mrs. Watts, the assistant principal, who stated, “…everyone is entitled to their own belief(s). I strongly believe in separation of church (belief) and state. I believe that it is the responsibility of the home to teach beliefs and values. Unfortunately, these incidents reveal that not every home teaches values.”

Toward the end of the day I received an additional email from Mr. Medlen who stated, “I have seen every student that I found to be involved in this matter and handled it as a disciplinary referral.”

My daughter continued to report incidents to the student counselor until every student involved had been verbally disciplined once and lectured on the values of religious freedom and harassment. On March 8th my daughter was accosted again in the hallway by students that had already been warned. They were immediately brought to the principal’s office where they were suspended for five days.

There was another incident today on March 12th in the lunchroom where a student tried to get other students to sing “Jesus loves you” to my daughter, but the other students were clearly uncomfortable. He was asking other students if they were “Christian or Catholic.” This student was brought to the principal’s office, but we are not aware of any disciplinary action yet.

From the moment I moved to Huntsville, I knew that it was not like the rest of Alabama. Huntsville is a diverse city with a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and other dynamics. The actions of the school reaffirmed my impression of Huntsville and were a great credit upon the principal and the Madison County School system.

Huntsville is home to the largest atheist group in Alabama with 80 members and it continues to grow. The two times the local atheist group, an affiliate of American Atheists, has screened movies at the local Arts Center they have drawn the biggest crowds the Arts Center has ever seen.

The lessons learned here are plentiful. The first lesson I learned is that our children, being independent thinkers, will try to deal with and solve problems like these on their own before coming to us. I have sat down with my daughters and expressed my pride in their courage, but I also encouraged them to come to me for help on any matter, regardless of how small it may seem, so they do not have to tackle issues like these on their own.

The second lesson learned is that writing a simple letter can sometimes accomplish a lot.

The third lesson leaned is that even in the heart of the Bible Belt we can sometimes find friends in places we least expect to find them, such as in the administrative office of a local school.

The fourth lesson learned is that it is sometimes better to take complaints up the “chain of command” and to give the lower levels a chance to solve the problem on their own. The less bureaucracy involved the better.

ENCLOSURE (1) (Edited to protect the names of children involved)

February 26, 2007

Mr. Richard Medlen, Riverton Middle School Principal
339 Homer Nance Road
Huntsville, AL 35811

Dear Mr. Medlen,

I am writing about the recent actions of students and some teachers at Riverton Middle School relating to freedom of religion and religious prejudice.

I have two daughters at Riverton Middle School. Their names are (Child A) and (Child B). Both of them are in the sixth grade. One of my daughters is an atheist and my other daughter is a Wiccan. While both of them have had questions asked of them by other students out of pure curiosity, I am deeply disturbed by recent actions that have occurred at the school.

During fifth period on February 22nd there were several children in Mrs. Tomasi’s class that were teasing my daughter (Child A) about her lack of belief in gods. The students were repetitively asking her “Why don’t you believe in god?” telling other students that she does not believe in god, and telling her repeatedly that she was “going to Hell.” While this threatening and harassing behavior is alarming on its own, what was more unsettling is that Mrs. Tomasi made no attempt to stop the harassment and religious intolerance taking place in her classroom. (Child A) has told me that this has happened before around other teachers, but it was during that incident in the classroom that she felt particularly threatened.

On February 23rd (Child A) had a substitute teacher named Mrs. Muddler, who did intervene and told the students that belief was (Child A’s) choice and for the students to be quiet. Mrs. Muddler advised (Child A) to “just ignore them.” While Mrs. Muddler is to be commended for stopping the harassment, telling (Child A) to “just ignore them” was not the right advice. No one should have to “just ignore” harassment.

Also on the 23rd during homeroom several students encircled (Child A) and prevented her from leaving. The students began to sing “Jesus loves you.” (Child A) felt threatened and was frightened because the students would not let her leave their encirclement. Where was the teacher during all of this? Did the teacher not hear the students singing or see them surrounding (Child A)?

My daughter (Child B) has recently had to deal with students telling her that she practices “Voodoo,” which is clearly a sign of ignorance on the students’ part, but is equally a sign of intimidation on their part as well. The idea being that (Child B) is not Christian and therefore is somehow “evil,” which is what the word Voodoo is meant to convey. This type of harassment and prejudice is detestable.

Both of my daughters are emotionally distressed over these recent events. It is worse for (Child A) who has received the brunt of the persecution and intolerance. She feels betrayed by the school faculty because they have failed to intervene.

Perhaps the real problem is the faculty and staff. Both of my daughters have repeatedly told me that on days of “First Priority” that several staff members have approached and asked, “Are you going to the library?” and tried to talk them into going to the library to participate in “First Priority.” (Child A) specifically remembers one of the nurses being overly enthusiastic about her going to the library.

Legal precedent has already been set regarding this action by faculty and staff. The faculty and staff are not allowed to promote or facilitate any religious events at the school or attempt to persuade students regarding religious beliefs. If the faculty and staff are harassing the children and promoting a Christian-based program before school, then it is no wonder that the students feel comfortable doing the same, especially since the teachers are making no effort to stop the prejudiced behavior of students.

Huntsville is a pluralistic city with a diversity of religious and non-religious groups. Huntsville is home to Islamic centers, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, many Christian denominations, Jewish Synagogues, a Unitarian Universalist Church, a sizeable Pagan group, New Age groups, and a large atheist group. The religious and ethnic pluralism of the city and its residents is equally reflected in the students attending Huntsville and Madison County schools. I personally know of several Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, and atheist students at Riverton Middle School.

Bullying on its own is unacceptable, but when that bullying crosses into religious intolerance and persecution it is indistinguishable from hate crime. When teachers refuse to intercede or even actively participate in the prejudice activity, then the issue becomes problematic and an indictment of the school in question.

I should not have to remind Riverton Middle School of its “Beliefs,” which include “Everyone needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” “Everyone needs to feel valued,” and “Everyone needs love, acceptance, support, and guidance.” These are admirable beliefs that on the surface appear to not be in practice by students and more importantly, by several teachers and staff members.

At this point I see no reason to name the individual students involved in the prejudice and persecution of my daughters. I have to wonder how many other students are being teased and harassed because of their religious or non-religious beliefs that we are not aware of. I do know that one of the Jewish students I know of has expressed to me that she has been the victim of the “you are going to Hell” line and at least once has been told that “she killed Jesus.”

This behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable. The fact that teachers and staff are condoning this behavior (if they fail to stop it then they condone it by default) is unpardonable.

An additional line from the Riverton Middle School beliefs states, “Everyone needs positive role models.” At this point, the teachers and staff members that are allowing or engaging in this harassment and discrimination to occur are certainly not in agreement with that statement.

If you find it hard, as much of our society does, to sympathize, I ask that you replace the word atheist with ‘black,’ ‘Jew,’ or ‘female.’ Intolerance of any kind is unacceptable in general and even more so from authority figures, no matter what they may think personally of the victims.

On February 26th, (Child A) found the courage to go and talk to Mrs. Stone about what was going on and Mrs. Stone took positive action to help. After another incident of a student saying “Jesus love you” to (Child A) in the hallway, (Child A) went immediately back to Mrs. Stone. Mrs. Stone talked to the student that was harassing (Child A). Mrs. Stone is to be commended for her actions and taking the positive steps needed to begin eradicating this prejudicial and threatening behavior.

I expect to hear from you on how you plan to address this issue and resolve the discrimination, harassment, intolerance, and prejudice that are occurring at your school.

Thank you,
Robert Blair Scott
Alabama State Director
American Atheists

cc: Mrs. Anna Watts, Riverton Middle School Assistant Principal
Mrs. Rhonda Pearsall, Riverton Middle School Counselor
Mrs. Amanda Stone, Riverton Middle School Counselor