Heather Estes says her son, fifth-grader Devin Estes, has been bullied by other students at Stanton Elementary in Powell County, Kentucky and given a hard time by teachers because he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t attend a morning religious service at the public school.
“They run it like a Christian school,” Estes told the Herald-Leader. “They have this program called The Upper Room. When I first got the permission slip, I asked around: What is the Upper Room? Why would I have to sign for something that’s during school hours?
“It’s like a little Sunday School program that they have during school hours,” said Estes.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they bully me because I’m not religious or Christian,” Devin, 10, told the Herald-Leader. “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.”
“It makes me feel like a bad person,” Devin said in a video his mother made one morning at the assembly. “I don’t want to feel like I’m a bad person.”
The school doors open at 7:30 a.m. and school starts at 8:10 a.m, Estes 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 to the American flag. Devin and a handful of other students choose to stay behind in the cafeteria during the service, Estes said.
On Friday, Estes said, Stanton Elementary Principal James Crase sent parents a letter that said he would not tolerate bullying. The letter also said the school had received threatening comments through Facebook and phone calls last week and the principal had asked for police presence on school grounds. The letter did not mention the Estes situation specifically.
Crase on Monday referred questions from the Herald-Leader to Powell Superintendent Michael Tate. Tate did not immediately reply to an email or phone call. But the Courier-Journal reported that Tate said district officials are looking into the situation and that student safety is a top priority.
Estes said Devin describes himself as atheist. As a family, Heather Estes said. “We are not religious. We don’t believe in the all-benevolent, omnipotent God of the Christian religion.” But she said they aren’t against other people’s religions.
Devin’s eight-year-old sister Georgia is not religious, Estes said, but she chooses to attend the Upper Room service.
“She doesn’t want to be singled out. She wants to just blend in.” Estes said. “They have agonized every year when they get these permission slips (to attend the assembly). I tell them ‘You can go if you want to. It’s your choice.’ ”
She said her son had attended the assembly in a previous year, but decided not to this school year. She said school officials had criticized her for taking a video of the assembly.
“The video was not planned,” Estes said. “I went to the principal’s office that morning to let him know that a student had hit my son based on this religious disagreement and he had asked to go to the principal’s office and the teacher had said “No, tell me what your problem is’ and he told her. And she said, “Well if you are going to insist on being different, then you are going to have to stand up for yourself.”
“The principal wasn’t there that day. I spoke to the guidance counselor,” Estes said.
She said as she walked her son back to the cafeteria that morning, she said “religious music was... blaring out into the hall.”
Inside the gym, “they are blaring Christian music,” said Estes, an attorney for the state department of Public Advocacy who represents indigent defendants in criminal cases.
“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,” said Estes. She said one teacher plays religious pop and country music for her students throughout the day.
That teacher made her son cry, Estes said, because the teacher said she would debate atheists and that “the atheists will pray when God sends a bear to eat them.,” a reference to biblical scripture.
Estes said that when she has complained to school officials about a boy bullying Devin and prompting other students to join in, they say they will deal with the bullying. “I say, ‘You are creating an environment with these programs that fosters this. So it’s never going to change until you deal with the fact that this illegal indoctrination that you are doing fosters the bullying. That’s why we don’t have state-sponsored religion in public schools.’”
Estes said she has talked to the principal about her concerns. She thinks Crase’s letter to parents was a direct result of her complaints and the publicity she’s received. She said she did not receive the letter, but another parent gave it to her.
The December 1 letter clarified the school’s policies for parent visits and said in part, “As principal, I take all parent concerns about bullying very seriously and it will not be tolerated.” He said he addressed parents’ complaints in a timely manner and encouraged anyone with concerns about his response to contact the superintendent..
Crase also wrote: “You may have noticed the police officers on school grounds this week. We have received a few threatening comments through Facebook and phone calls, and working with local police, it was decided we would take extra precautions to protect our students and staff. At present we do not know of any credible threat. ”
Crase said as a proactive measure, he had requested “city police to be on school grounds this week and any other days deemed necessary.”
A school district web page describing Powell County High School Upper Room meetings said they are interdenominational and student led. Estes said the Upper Room meeting she saw at Stanton Elementary was led by a teacher.
“Why wouldn’t you want to create a beginning to the school day that is more inclusive? Why can’t we say positive things to all the children? There’s no reason we have to start the day with segregating the non-religious kids and having them get picked on all day,” said Estes.
Estes said she is seriously considering moving from Powell County.
And, she said, “We do have a team of lawyers that is looking at the situation.”
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the Kentucky ACLU, said he thinks the morning program violates the Constitution.