Hampton Roads: Oakwood Elementary's principal was placed on administrative leave Friday as school officials investigated why life like, 4-inch-long plastic fetus dolls were given to dozens of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
On Thursday, the school staffer thought to be responsible for handing out the dolls was placed on leave.
Oakwood took another hit this week when the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia blasted its principal for inviting students and teachers to participate in prayer and Bible study. The organization said such acts are coercive and violate the Constitution.
The group asked Superintendent Stephen Jones in a letter sent Friday to immediately instruct Oakwood Principal Sheila Tillett Holas on the constitutional rights of teachers and students, and to stop religious overtures to them, as well as all organized religious activity on school grounds.
Holas was put on administrative leave Friday and did not respond to requests for an interview.
"The principal is on administrative leave because the superintendent felt it would be best for the school while the investigation is ongoing," said school division spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather. "It's a serious incident, a serious allegation; you don't want to let it linger."
Thiel Mather said she didn't know whether Holas had known about or approved of the dolls' distribution. Thiel Mather said students got the dolls at school last fall. But an Oakwood parent told The Pilot this week that her fourth-grade daughter was given one of the dolls within the last month.
Jones told the City Council about the incident in a memo Friday.
"I will act quickly to bring the Oakwood incident to a resolution in consultation with the School Board," he stated. "Also, all Norfolk Public Schools instructional staff members will be reminded of the expectations following this situation."
The ACLU's letter to the superintendent was in reaction to a recently released workplace climate study conducted at Oakwood by division leaders. The survey showed that most respondents said they'd been asked to participate in religious activities at Oakwood.
"We have received numerous e-mails that Bible study is being held and Mrs. Holas' pastor will be the one leading it and we should feel the need to attend," one staffer said in the survey. A few said they knew of incidents in which students were participating in prayer or Bible study, but most respondents indicated they knew of none.
"Regardless of whether these activities are ' voluntary, ' such invitations are inherently coercive because of the power differential between principal and teachers," Rebecca Glenburg, the ACLU's legal director, said in a letter to Jones. Glenburg said the principal's invitations to staff "convey a message that the school endorses religion generally or a particular religion."
Complaints about prayer activity surfaced in March when Oakwood staff reported incidents to a state team interviewing Norfolk educators about Standards of Learning testing practices.
The Oakwood teachers said they were "instructed by the principal to hold hands and pray and contribute to prayer before the administration of the writing tests," Charles Pyle, a state Department of Education spokesman, said at the time. The teachers reported "being compelled or at least feeling they were compelled to participate."
The state referred the allegations to Jones. In late March, Thiel Mather said Jones had found that a Bible study group that met at Oakwood before school hours was voluntary. Additionally, Holas on one occasion accepted two students' invitation to pray with them before a test, Thiel Mather said.
Thiel Mather noted that Norfolk public schools' administrators are barred from requiring any particular religious expression, activity or meeting. She said local ministry leaders are among the division's "valued partners" in the community.
In the workplace study of Oakwood, 38 employees were interviewed by central office staffers about the school's religious activity, the principal's leadership style, school spirit, and staff collaboration and input in the decision-making process. The division released the survey's executive summary in response to The Pilot's Freedom of Information Act request.
Some of the respondents lauded Holas for being an effective leader and for treating them like professionals.
The questionnaire on the Bible study and prayer quizzed staff members on whether they had been asked to participate. Most said yes, and most of those said the invitation came from Holas. Some said the invitation came via a flier, e-mail or a co-worker.
One respondent noted: "Yes, by e-mail from Ms. Holas. Ms. Holas' pastor came to faculty meeting, first Friday of school, prior to kids' return. He explained that the teachers were doing God's work. Jewish teacher walked out."
Another responded said: "I was handed a flyer. The offer has been made but not in an intimidating way."
Most respondents said Oakwood students were not participating in the prayer or Bible study.
According to one respondent: "After [the] writing SOL a student indicated that they were asked to stand for prayer. The student came to me because she was uncomfortable. The description 'the principal came in, asked us to stand and hold hands and told us we were going to pray before the SOL and who wanted to start?' The student said she felt 'weird' and pressured to say something in the prayer."
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