Was a Child Really Suspended From School for Drawing a Crucifix?

8 years ago

Brace yourself for a rocky ride. This story has more twists and turns than the Tilt-A-Whirl at an amusement park. Add in knee-jerk reactions from the right and the left, two battling newspapers, a host of finger pointing and you get the scandal du jour in the world of religious news stories.

Initial Story

An eight year old, African-American, special-needs boy is suspended from elementary school in Taunton,MA. When his teacher asked the class to draw something that reminded them of Christmas, he drew the crucifix of Jesus with X's for eyes to show that Jesus was dead. The school said this was a "violent image" and insisted the child undergo psychological evaluation before being readmitted. The family had just visited the Christmas display at the La Salette Shrine nearby, which has on the grounds a large, well-lit, very tall crucifix of Jesus. The child has no history of behavior problems. He takes the evaluation, shows no sign of problems, and is reportedly traumatized about returning to that school.

Here is a close up of the drawing.

Initial Reaction

I hard this story and was furious. Was this reaction by the school a spill-over from the violent depiction of the crucifixion in Mel Gibson's movie? Were all Christian believers to be characterized as being fixated on violence? Is this an extension of a ban on religious expression in public places? Did the school also expel kids who drew pictures of tanks and guns during the year, or space ships with phasers? Were people reacting without even looking at a picture of the shrine he had just seen? If the child was a church-goer, he may have even heard a sermon about how the infant Jesus ended up as the Christ on Calvary. Or, his church may have had a crucifix of Jesus near a nativity scene. This is not uncommon in Catholic churches. The kid is eight, hardly a violent threat to anyone's well-being.

Blog Reaction

Plenty of folks, liberal and conservative, were irate and felt this was a further restriction on religious expression. Here the child was asked to draw about Christmas, but this expression of it was not OK. Sodahead said "If schools are going to go to such lengths to remove any hints of religion from the classroom—and the individual student—then maybe they should stop celebrating holidays like Christmas and Easter altogether. It just sends mixed messages to all involved." Right wing blogs pointed to it as just another sign of religious repression in America, and the old echoes of "school prayer" began to resurface.

The press published articles. TV News stations featured it. Right wing or Left wing, there is nothing we like more than a little righteous indignation. There was plenty to go around as people -- and I include myself -- rushed to judgment.

Then other details started trickling out. Are they true? Is it the school district just defending itself? Is the father scamming? Is the child really a victim?

The Debate Rages

The Boston Globe reports that the Taunton school district denies that they suspended the child. They also say that the copy of the picture being circulated by the family is not the one they found. They also add that the child said, when asked who was on the cross, that he himself was. They also say that no one asked the class to draw pictures reminding them of Christmas. And the father? The Globe article says :

Making the story more compelling, the boy’s father held court for much of the day at his girlfriend’s apartment, granting interviews to reporters from Providence to Boston, demanding that the school district compensate him for his family’s pain and suffering.

“It hurts me that they did this to my kid,’’ Chester Johnson, the boy’s father, said in an interview with the Globe. “They can’t mess with our religion. They owe us a small lump sum for this...
Johnson said his son was suffering as a result of the commotion. He said his grades have declined in recent days and that he wanted him to be transferred to the Elizabeth Pole School, the most recently built in Taunton.

“He said he was uncomfortable,’’ he said. “I also think they should give him a fully paid scholarship to the school of his choice. We should be compensated for our pain and suffering.’’

Johnson acknowledged that his son identified himself on the cross, but he said it was only after he told school officials that his picture represented Jesus.

“He was scared, so he changed his story,’’ Johnson said

Initially the mayor of Taunton demanded an apology to the family. Now he has retracted that and stands by his superintendent. The father admits the child was not suspended per se; but it is accurate that the child was not allowed back to school until he had been tested and evaluated.

The publisher of the newspaper that broke the story, The Taunton Daily Gazette, posted his response here, basically claiming that the school gave his newspaper inadequate information at first, and that they are being unfair in assaulting his paper's level of coverage by only now dealing with the Boston Globe.

It is, in brief, a mess. THIS is EXACTLY how urban legends are born.

My guess is that we will be hearing about this as an act of "religious persecution" for months, maybe years. It will be spun, unspun, respun. The story is already starting to morph from blog to blog, replete with quotes that I am unable to substantiate in any press or public document.

But what IS true here? I was raised to always believe the school. In the 1950's/60's, those were the rules.

But they were not always good rules.

Now we have to ask ourselves better questions.

Would a school in liberal Massachusetts in 2009, with all the sensitivities about public religious expression, ask students to draw something that reminded them of Christmas?

Would a school in Taunton, a town with at least eight Catholic churches so clearly misunderstand why a child might draw a crucifix?

Would the father be accurately described as "holding court" with the press and asking for a "lump sum", or is that a prejudicial caricature?

To what extent is the race of the child and his father an issue in the actions and reporting of the actions?

Peg raises some added questions:

If the kid drew a crucifix, there is nothing wrong with that. So, what did the boy draw to raise concerns of the school? What intervention did the school actually pursue? Was it reasonable? What's the dad's agenda?

Latest News

The Taunton Gazette reports that the parents of the boy were no-shows at a scheduled meeting Wednesday between the school and the parents, and that no advance absence notice was given.
A meeting between Taunton Schools Superintendent, Julie Hackett, and the family of a boy who drew a picture of Jesus that has caused a national uproar did not materialize Wednesday. The father is now "deferring all media inquiries to a spokesperson at the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit international civil liberties legal group based in Charlottesville, Va., The group specializes in defending constitutional and religious rights."

The paper also reports that the a letter was sent to the school district, noting “that the effective suspension of [the student] from school deprived him and his parents of their constitutional rights to due process and punished [him] for engaging in expressive activity protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

The district was asked to take on the costs of transferring the boy to an out-of-district school and to reimburse the parents parents for any additional transportation costs.

I think Theresa at Momaniasums it up well: "I feel like we’re missing something from this story. It just doesn’t seem to make sense."

Osumashi has her take on it as a former teacher.

In my time teaching, I've seen kids draw reindeer instead of cars, put ink in their mouths, sing songs, dance when there is no music and behave when presented a cookie or sticker. I've also seen kids with anger issues. I've seen kids blithely rattle off the garbage they watch on TV because their parents are too lazy to monitor their watching habits or even engage them in another activity altogether. Never once would anyone suggest these children needed help. Did it not occur to the teacher to quietly ask the boy why he drew what he did or go out on a limb and make a cognitive connection between Christ on the Cross and the Christ-Child in a manger (not that we're allowed to discuss any of these things)? Did it not occur to the teacher that the over-reaction was more harmful than helpful?

And in the middle of all this is the child. We can only hope that no matter what the story, that the child's best interests are served.

So how do you sort through this tale? What makes sense to you? What role did the press play here?

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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