Newton school officials mixed on Bible lesson waiver
A decision to allow a Newton South High School student to drop a required study of Biblical texts for a literature class has met with mixed reaction from district officials.
“In schools, we do this. We sometimes have to occasionally create alternative kinds of assignments because of mitigating circumstances that come up,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Stein.
Last month, administrators at Newton South High School agreed that 15-year-old sophomore Jack Summers could drop a requirement to study some Biblical passages as part of an honors English class.
The Bible is used to introduce students to the cultural traditions and allusions found in much of Western literature, said school officials.
Summers, who said he is an atheist, objected to reading a religious text in school. After Summers refused to read the text, and failed two quizzes, his mother notified the school and officials agreed to let him use a summarized version of the Biblical texts instead.
The school later decided to drop Summers' two failing grades and complete a class project that didn't involve the Bible.
Both Summers and district officials have said no one used the Bible to proselytize to students.
“There's a real big difference in exposing students to a viewpoint, and forcing a viewpoint on them,” said Stein.
But School Committee member Geoff Epstein said the decision should be reviewed by Superintendent Jim Marini, and possibly reviewed by the board itself after Marini's work.
“I think this is something worth keeping in the system (for review), because this might have broader implications that haven't been considered,” said Epstein.
Epstein was concerned that other families might also seek exemptions from studying other parts of a school's curriculum.
“I'd be uncomfortable if this decision stands,” said Epstein.
Stein said the decision to accommodate Summers' concerns was made after several meetings with him and South High School officials. Stein wasn't part of those discussions, but said he trusted the decision was the right one to make in that case.
Stein did not believe the decision would lead to other families requesting an accommodation from the curriculum.
The decision doesn't mean the district makes changes to what is taught in schools, he said. In the case of the Bible, the text is part of the state's educational frameworks and the district considers it an “important part of the curriculum.”
He noted the quizzes that the school waived were worth about 1 percent of a student's final grade in that honors English class.
“Would we eliminate the curriculum because one student might find reading it stressful or distressful? No,” said Stein.
But accommodating Summers' concern about the Bible requirement wasn't the correct solution, said School Committee member Kurt Kusiak.
“On the surface, it seems wrong to me,” said Kusiak. “When you're talking (about) a literature course, an atheist shouldn't have an objection to the Bible any more than to Greek mythology.”
Kusiak said he spoke to Stein about this, and said the district needs to have a uniform way to handle these kinds of situations in the future. But Kusiak doesn't think this will mean other students and families will seek exemptions from studying required subjects.
He said the district should meet legal requirements when an issue is raised about the curriculum.
“You just follow the law, that's how you deal with it,” said Kusiak.
The School Committee's Epstein said he supported Summers' stand and South High administrators who made the decision, and said Summers “should be applauded” for standing for his principles.
“This is a sign of life” in the school system to have this discussion, said Epstein.
Incoming member Matt Hills said the matter should be left to Marini, Stein and other administrators to handle, calling the matter a “day-to-day” decision for the School Department.
“It would be dysfunctional for the School Committee to weigh in on a decision like this,” said Hills.
Hills said what he knows of the decision came from the TAB’s blog, and said while he has an opinion, the matter has nothing to do with the School Committee.
“As a School Committee member-elect, this is not an issue I should be weighing in on,” said Hills.
Outgoing School Committee Chairman Marc Laredo and incoming board member Margie Ross Decter declined to comment on the decision.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com