Yosemite Unified School District trustees could vote next month on a revised policy some argue will place fears of litigation over the interests of its students.
District officials feel the revision, which would limit the number of annual guest visits to on-campus student clubs is legally sound, but some contend it could infringe on student rights by denying them access to community leaders.
During the board’s scheduled meeting March 14 at Coarsegold Elementary School, a crowd of around 125 gathered, largely in support of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), to oppose the proposed changes on a district code based around the 1984 federal Equal Access Act.
The act applies to students in secondary school, which YUSD defines as 7th grade or higher. It grants those students the right to hold on-campus meetings for religious or other reasons during noninstructional time during a school day, typically during the lunch hour.
On Nov. 19, a parent’s letter of complaint, sent to the board, led to creation of the proposed policy change.
In it, among many concerns, the parent claimed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes “Huddle,” or meeting, at Rivergold Elementary School Nov. 12 violated the Equal Access Act’s legal criteria.
In the criteria, each meeting must be voluntary and initiated by students. It cannot be sponsored by a school, government, or any affiliated employees, though those employees can be present at religious meetings in a nonparticipatory capacity. The meeting cannot interfere with orderly conduct of educational activity at the school.
One additional line is under question.
The current YUSD policy uses similar language as the act, and reads “non-school persons shall not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”
“Non-school persons” are defined as those not employed at the school they attend.
The parent’s 12-page letter, sent a week after the FCA meeting at Rivergold Nov. 12, claimed FCA officials organized and led the event, not students as the law mandates.
The district’s proposed policy, if approved by the board at its next meeting April 11, seeks to eliminate that issue.
The policy would limit visits by “non-school persons” to all student groups or clubs in YUSD. At the 7th and 8th grade level, it would allow for six visits each year, taken in aggregate. That means if one person visits six times, or six people visit one time each, that would use the entirety of the year.
For high school, the policy would allow for 18 such visits.
YUSD Assistant Superintendent Leonard Kahn said that number was estimated from how often groups meet at those levels.
He added the limit was designed to ensure students properly follow the Equal Access Act and aren’t influenced by outside groups as a sort of prevention measure from potential litigation.
Shortly after receiving the letter, the district also placed a moratorium on FCA visitors at Rivergold as the situation was investigated, though Kahn said students could still have FCA meetings as they wished.
District officials later looked into the letter’s many issues, and felt they had been properly addressed. The moratorium was also lifted at the March 14 board meeting. That allows non-school visitors to attend Rivergold’s next Huddle, though it had yet to be scheduled by press time.
The parent, who said they were supported by many in the community, asked to remain anonymous out of fears their children, particularly one at Rivergold Elementary, would be targeted for harassment in an area known as a strong Christian base.
“I have a powerful belief in Christianity for making a positive impact in people’s lives,” the parent said. “My contention is not anti-religion, or against the FCA at all. It’s a positive thing, and I definitely support it being at high schools. My contention is the FCA doesn’t belong on elementary or middle school campuses, as I think kids are more malleable, and more susceptible to coercion. Peer pressure has a strong effect at that age, especially in a small school.”
FCA volunteer John Lorenzana, a pastor at Yosemite Lakes Community Church who attended the Rivergold meeting, assured it was organized and led by students.
He also pointed to support for FCA at more than 80 campuses in the Central Valley, and the importance of the organization’s core principles of integrity, service, and teamwork.
“I’ve dealt with countless students and when they learn the value of teamwork, both academically and in sports, the statistics have proven that young people are better because of that,” Lorenzana said. “The whole purpose here is to build a bridge with the community and give students the opportunity to pray, celebrate, and share their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Among the more than 10 who made comments at the board meeting was a theme of support for FCA.
Speakers included three 7th grade Rivergold students who said they led the organization of the Huddle.
“This club is totally student driven and we invite speakers to come talk how God helped them through their lives,” said Emily Rich, one of the three. “We believe junior high is where you define who you are. We must have the creativity to be ourselves and be open minded.”
Anita Johnson, a member of the original FCA club at Yosemite High School in 1984, added limiting visits for any group, not just FCA, could be legally dangerous.
“This could affect every club on campus,” Johnson said. “What a gift these children have to take their lunch hour and be mentored by community leaders where they might not have that at home ... what you’re limiting is the success of students because of your fear of lawsuits.”
Kahn said he felt even though he “heard the public loud and clear,” he felt the policy, if approved, protects the district.
“Regardless of what some people feel is necessary, this board and superintendent still have a very important job of protecting this institution from lawsuits,” Kahn said. “This is policy language that would not motivate anybody to seek action legally.”
Kahn said trustees have the ability to vote on the changed policy April 11, but could also move it to a later date or take other actions within their power.