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Fury growing over Temecula first grader’s Christmas presentation


Friday, January 24th, 2014
Issue 04, Volume 18.
Michelle Mears-Gerst
Special to the Valley News


Update:

Fury was growing last week as more parents learned about the allegations made by Advocates for Faith and Freedom, where they asserted first-grader Brynn Williams was denied the right to free expression in the classroom on Dec. 18, 2013, when she gave a presentation about the Star of Bethlehem and what it meant to her family at Christmas-time.

The Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) refused to comment on the situation until the Tuesday, Jan. 21 school board meeting. During the Public Comment section, Ami Paradise, principal at Jackson Elementary, and Tammy Williams, the first grade teacher, spoke to school board members and the public about the claims being made by the legal group Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

The teacher and principal would not comment prior to the school board meeting. As of Wednesday, Jan. 29, TVUSD will not offer any more information and an investigation into the situation remains open.

Statement from Tammy Williams, first grade teacher at Jackson

Elementary School:

"Hello Members of the Board,

"My name is Tammy Williams and I am a first grade teacher at Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School. Last Tuesday, my reputation was questioned by the family of a student in my class and the Advocates for Faith and Freedom with accusations that I was hostile and bullied a child in my class over her religious beliefs. I wanted to make a statement here tonight to respond to these untrue accusations.

"On Thursday, December 19, my class was getting our classroom ready for our holiday party that was to occur the next morning. We took longer than normal putting things away to ensure that the desks were clean and book boxes were put away so that tables could be used for our centers. This was normally something we did on Fridays. Because of this, we were running behind and I still had six students who needed to do their sharing. I had a very limited amount of time and needed to make sure all students had time to share. Now remember, this is sharing. They were not oral reports. Students were asked to share a family tradition. It could be anything, not just a Christmas tradition. During sharing, I work with students on looking at the audience and using clear voices. We also work on listening skills and asking questions.

"This student was not the last student to present as had been reported. I still had a couple of students after her (which was the Student of the Day and the Student of the Week). When she started her share, she pulled out her golden star that I held for her as she pulled out her prepared speech written by one of her parents. This was unusual because rarely does a student have a prepared statement to read.

"As I held the star, the student began to read her statement. I helped her with a few words that she was having trouble. I decided that I would have the student stop after sharing about Mary and Joseph. I felt that it would take too long and I still needed her to take her question and I had a few clarifying questions for her as well. At this point, I simply said the following, ‘Ok, stop here and you get one question.’ She simply put her paper down and picked a student who asked her a question. I also asked her, ‘Who puts the star on the tree? Do you take turns?’ I even suggested that her dad could lift her up to let her put it on the tree. After that, she put her star away and sat with the class while we finished with the other students. I monitor all students this way. She at no time complained or acted sad. She was as happy as always.

"I want to be very clear about the following.

"At no time did I ever tell the student that she could not read the bottom section because it was a Bible verse nor did she ask if she could finish. I never told her to ‘Stop right there!’ or ‘Go take your seat!’ or reprimand her in front of the class for sharing from the Bible. It just did not happen. This subject matter was never discussed. I decided to stop her at that point so the other students would get their share in before the bell rang. My students have always been free to share their ideas.

"What saddens me is that this story was twisted into lies and brought to the media. I have never sat down and discussed this directly with the family or the student. I am instead being used to push an agenda for the Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

"In closing, I want to express how blessed I am to work at a school that has stood behind me 100% and have had a tremendous amount of support from current parents and past parents who knew that the accusations were false just by hearing the story. They know that I would never behave in the manner in which I have been accused."

Statement from Jackson

Elementary School Principal, Ami Paradise:

"Honorable Board Members,

"My name is Ami Paradise and I am the principal of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School. I stand before you tonight as an educator, wife, mother of two great little boys, and I would like to state that I am a Christian.

"Over the past week, I have received countless phone calls and 126 mean-spirited emails from across the country because of the claims that the Advocates of Faith and Freedom have made Advertisement
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against one of my teachers, the school district, and me. These claims are simply not true.

"When I met with the parent on December 20, 2013, she shared that she and her husband were upset that their child was unable to finish her presentation and that they thought it was because it contained a Bible verse. There were absolutely no claims of humiliation or bullying by the classroom teacher. No claims that their child was told to take her seat or that she could not talk about the Bible. These claims have been made in the midst of a media spotlight in order to sensationalize a story. The truth is, there were other students left to present before the end of the day, and there was just not enough time.

"Furthermore, when I met with this parent I never told her that her child may not share her beliefs aloud to other students nor did I try to stifle her freedom of speech in any way. I told the parent that I would follow up with the classroom teacher, and I sent her the results of my findings along with the copy of the board policy regarding religion on December 24, 2013. I have not heard from her since. Not once, to tell me that she did not agree with my findings, not once to ask for a classroom change for her child. In fact, with the exception of today, this student has attended school every day since this incident, in the same exact classroom where this alleged incident occurred.

"Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not address the classroom teacher in the center of this controversy -- Mrs. Tammy Williams. Mrs. Tammy Williams is one of the finest educators I have ever worked with. She is an AMAZING first grade teacher, taught my own son last year, and I would not hesitate to put my younger son in her class. She does not deserve the harassment or bullying that she has received the questioning of her professional skills or judgment, or the claims that she harmed this child in any way.

"I stand behind Mrs. Tammy Williams 110% and find it extremely unfortunate that the Advocates for Faith and Freedom have irrevocably caused damage to her good name. The days will pass and this story will not be at the top of the news for long, but the damage that it has done to the good names of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School, Mrs. Tammy Williams, and I will be difficult to repair."

****************

A first grader in Temecula Valley was denied finishing her presentation on Christmas when she started to talk about the

Bible, according to attorneys from Advocates of Faith and Freedom.

The family of student Brynn Williams alleges that on Dec. 18, 2013 a teacher asked the first graders at Helen Hunt-Jackson Elementary School to share with their classmates a family tradition in their home.

The attorneys from the Murrieta-based nonprofit law firm said Brynn Williams brought in the "Star of Bethlehem". The star was an ornament that is placed on the top of her family’s Christmas tree. Williams told the class the star "represented her family’s tradition of remembering why Christmas is celebrated." Attorneys said the presentation was one minute.

Attorneys said Brynn began her presentation with the following statement: "Our Christmas tradition is to put a star on top of our tree. It is named the Star of Bethlehem. The three kings followed the star to find baby Jesus, the Savior of the world. John…"

Brynn’s teacher, according to attorneys, said, "Stop! Go take your seat!" and Brynn was not allowed to finish her presentation. The rest of Brynn’s presentation included reciting a Bible verse from the Gospel of John, John 3:16.

The only first grader not allowed to finish her presentation was Brynn, attorneys said. The teacher allegedly explained to Brynn and all the other students that the Bible and its verses were not allowed to be shared in class.

Attorneys said school principal Ami Paradise told Brynn’s mother Gina Williams that the teacher had to stop the presentation because "we don’t want to offend other students."

A letter was sent to the Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) by Attorney Robert Tyler demanding a new policy be adopted. The new policy would prohibit school officials from expressing disapproval or hostility toward religion or toward religious viewpoints expressed by students.

"The disapproval and hostility that Christian students have come to experience in our nation’s public schools has become epidemic," Tyler said in a statement. "I hope that TVUSD will take the lead role in adopting a model policy to prohibit this abuse that has become all too common place for religious-minded students."

Melanie Norton, the communications and community relations coordinator for TVUSD, said the school district has been fielding phone calls from people all across the nation who were upset about the situation.

"The district is currently investigating the matter and cannot comment right now," said Norton. "There is no lawsuit, just a 10-page complaint letter from the law firm."

On Tuesday, Jan. 22 close to 50 people showed up at Jackson Elementary to protest in support of Brynn Williams and her right to talk about the Star of Bethlehem in school.

Last week, the district released a statement stating the district "respects all students’ rights under the Constitution and takes very seriously any allegation of discrimination."

Editor's Note: Contact with school officials, including the principal and teacher, has been made and a follow-up story is in the works to provide the latest developments in the case.


 

21 comments

Comment Profile ImageMe not you..
Comment #1 | Friday, Jan 24, 2014 at 11:36 pm
This is dumb. The teacher did the right thing and now everybody is acting emotional about it instead of using their brains and thinking rationally. I think God would Forgive and move on but no, now we have to attack each other and ruin each others lives.... Yeah thats what God would want isnt it? Does PETER ring a bell to anyone? Most Religious people are the biggest hypocrites ever, they pick and practice only want they want out of their religion never all the way.
Comment Profile ImageZygo
Comment #2 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 3:42 am
Christmas is a Christian celebration. Regardless of the varied sources of our Christmas traditions, many of them pagan, it is still a Christian celebration. To ask students about their own families' traditions is to invite this type of response from a student. To then censor a student for sharing his/her families' tradition is a slap in the face to that student and subjecting that student to ridicule. Many Jewish families now celebrate the non-Christian portions of Christmas (which is actually how -arguably- most of the rest of us also celebrate it). Would a Jewish child have been censored if he/she would have related how Jewish traditions in their family allow them to celebrate Christmas? And, although I truly have no first first hand knowledge, I would suspect that even some Moslem families and other religions celebrate the festivities of the Christmas season without turning their backs on their own religions. No other belief system was attacked by this child. No one should be offended by responding honestly to a question...offense is the censorship of that answer. If you don't want the answer --- don't ask the question.
Comment Profile ImageBeth
Comment #3 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 4:41 am
Oh my! Another "persecuted" Christian! When will the brutal oppression ever end? LMAO!!
Comment Profile ImageTruth
Comment #4 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 11:37 am
Give me a break! The ones that are emotional and attacking a poor child are the school and the teacher. The teacher should not be in charge of children if he acts like the 1st grader's he attempts to teach. It appears Satan has taken control of the public school system. No religion in schools, yes, but when kids are asked how their family celebrates Christmas and this is the response of the teacher and administrators, it is disgusting.

Hopefully the phone calls are just kicking up. When this goes on Drudge Report and the national radio shows pick it, expect more. A lot more!
Comment Profile ImageL. Q.
Comment #5 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 12:38 pm
This was a poorly thought out lesson plan. To ask a small child to speak about Christmas with the unspoken expectation to avoid the person for which the holiday is named is really stupid. That's like asking someone to talk about Band Aids and getting frustrated if they refer to bandages. This child is not a priest, bishop, or nun. This is not the forward party of the crusades. Let the child finish her 2 minute speech without interruption and no one would have been the wiser. The teacher made a mountain out of a molehill.
Comment Profile ImagePat
Comment #6 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm
The teacher should have allowed the child to finish and then said, "Thank you, Brynn. Class, Brynn just explained how some families celebrate. There are many holidays and many ways to celebrate. Some are religious holidays and some are not. Who would like to share a different way?" Later she could have a private word with Brynn and, if necessary, a friendly conversation with Brynn's parents. Respect on all sides.
Comment Profile Imagesheila
Comment #7 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 5:50 pm
The teacher asked for kids to share a family tradition. If the child would have talked about ramadan or hanukkah or a native american tradition would the teacher have reacted the same way? Many families are faith based and have traditions built around them. Regardless of it being a public school a child sharing is not the same as a government agency promoting one faith over another.
Comment Profile ImageBob
Comment #8 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm
Good. "Presentation" is one thing. This sounds more like the student tried to deliver a sermon. How about if a kid wanted to read passages from the Koran? I think I know what many would say - yeah for my religion - boo for everyone elses'.
Comment Continued : The comment above was written from the same location.
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Comment Profile ImageBOB
Comment #9 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm
Good. "Presentation" is one thing. This sounds more like the student tried to deliver a sermon.
Comment Continued : The comment above was written from the same location.
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Comment Profile ImageBob
Comment #10 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm
How about if a kid wanted to read passages from the Koran? I think I know what many would say - yeah for my religion - boo for everyone elses'.
Comment Continued : The comment above was written from the same location.
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Comment Profile ImageBOB
Comment #11 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm
Boo.
Comment Profile ImageZygo
Comment #12 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 6:29 pm
Beth: I don't think it is a matter of a persecuted Christian, I just believe it was, as L.Q. pointed out, a poorly thought out lesson plan. Don't ask a question and then get upset with the obvious answer. We have become a politically correct nation where often in our zeal to not offend anyone we end up offending almost everyone.
On another note, I read in another paper that what the child was giving was a written presentation on Christianity by her mother. If it was preaching and not just sharing, it definitely changes the color of the problem. The matter is under investigation by the district and it will be interesting to find where the chips end up falling.
Comment Profile ImageMustafaa Abdallah
Comment #13 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 7:19 pm
The little girl was about to start proselytizing or at least preach. To include Jesus is the Savior of the world, is complete and full religious doctrine; with additional plans to reference passages from the bible. Stating We put this star, which is called the Star of Bethlehem, on top of our tree. would have been suffice. Allowing her to continue to speak on her families religious beliefs and religious doctrines would have literally allowed for her to go into such subjects as Jesus saves us from sins such as homosexuality, which is an abomination.

You christians who are up-in-arms would not of appreciated if a Muslim child stood before the class and said We dont celebrate christmas, because Jesus was only a prophet, and the most important prophet was Muhammed because he was the last prophet of Allah, who is God and there is no other God.

If its a discourse on philosophy and or religion thats one thing. this was not that.

If someone references God outside of the general sense of God i.e., specific deity names, then there must be the allowance for rebuttal and dissenting religious views. Of course these days even bringing up the concept of god is an issue.

The teacher should have thought fully about what may happen and maybe even had them write out what was going to be said and then edited them to what was appropriate. I also question, in Truth, if the teacher exclaimed as they are trying to portray her, with the Stop! etc., just to play-up the hostility that supposedly exists in schools. Its a good chance that the teacher herself is christian. Truth bless.
Comment Profile Imageanotherview
Comment #14 | Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 at 11:33 pm
The parents and the religious law firm involved set up this incident by having the little girl read from a prepared statement, no doubt written by the parents who must've known the insertion of readings from the Bible cannot take place in the classroom of a public school. The parents and the religious law firm have no scruples. They will use a little girl to push their belief system where it does not belong.

The educators involved have described the incident in plain terms that do not support the accusations of the parents and the religious law firm.
Comment Profile ImagePaullywog
Comment #15 | Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 8:47 am
Mustafa-

Actually we encourage religous freedom here in the United States. Temecual is building a new Mosque. I hope there are no jihadists that come from there as a result. I mean they are everywhere. All over this country.
If I deem right then Muslim children should stay in school and not have any "Christmas" holiday. If you deem it necessary then go to TVUSD and make your case. Otherwise have your child tell his Christmas tradition and be allowed to speak from the Koran(isn't that where it says Christians are weak or infidels?).

Your religion says Mohammed is the only Allah right? How did he get his power? Did he not murder many people along the way? Is it not the jihadist way that is twisted like this? Killing their own fellow muslims along with over 2,000 Americans on September 11, 2001? Yet because many people in my country were murdered I am supposed to accept your religion? No way Jose but if you choose your religion guess what? You can do that in America? I wonder if the same can be said about christians across the middle east? The thousands that have been killed and fleeing Egypt? The persecution. The hatred. Mustafaa why do Muslims hate christians? I mean the Crusades have been over for like 400 years or so?
Oh and by the way the little girl was expressing free speech. It is allowed. Your intolerance of christians speaks volumes about you. Her free speech was violated. I would expect the same even if your son/daugther spoke in front of the class.
Comment Profile ImageZygo
Comment #16 | Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 12:15 pm
Paullywog-
Your ignorance is quite glaring. Mohammad was not god, he was a prophet of god. Allah and god are the same. We say god, they say Allah. Christians, Jews and Muslems all worship the same one god. Christians believe Jesus was the son of god, Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet of god and Jews believe neither is true.
Not all Christians are fundamentalists nor are all Muslims fundamentalists. And, even among fundamentalists, not all are the same. Yes, ignorant wackos that kill in the name of god are a major problem, but don't assign that label to everyone.
And...if the child was telling what his family does for Christmas and was stopped - bad. But, if the child was reading from a prepared statement his/her parent wrote and it was preaching and not just sharing - the bad is on the part of the parent.
Comment Profile Imagemom of 2
Comment #17 | Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 6:48 pm
Not interested in having my daughters preached to in a public elementary school. We have laws to prevent this. Maybe Mrs. Williams should enroll her child in a private christian school where her daughter can recite from her favorite fairy tale book to her heart's content. Enough of this stuff!
Comment Profile ImageLarry B.
Comment #18 | Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 11:21 pm
Yet another manufactured controversy courtesy of the dying so called "Tea Party."
Comment Profile ImageVALLEY NEWS
Comment #19 | Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014 at 12:29 pm
The Valley News respects all opinions. However, we cannot approve any comments that may be deemed libelous and state “facts” that have yet to be proven.

Comments from the school expressed during the board meeting were made after press deadline. As a weekly newspaper, we are constrained to the details that are available to publish at such time. Melanie Norton, the district’s communications director, was the only person able to make comment on the situation’s then-current status.

However, we have since reached out to school officials, including the principal and teacher, and are working on a follow up story to provide the latest developments in the case.

Thank you.

--Valley News Editorial
Comment Profile ImageErin M
Comment #20 | Friday, Jan 31, 2014 at 1:23 am
So you promised to write an article detailing the other side of this story. Where is it?

EDITORIAL NOTE: Our weekly paper is distributed every Friday. Hence, uploads of those stories that ran in the issue are made on Friday as well. You will find an update on this story later today. Thank you.
Comment Profile ImageAmastris
Comment #21 | Friday, Jan 31, 2014 at 7:29 am
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." -- The 1st Amendment!!

What's laughable or those Leftist Democrats coming on here to comment about how people should just lay down their 1st Amendment Right that INCLUDES "prohibiting the FREE EXERCISE THEREOF". I understande that Democrats have a hard time with defiintions and grammar, so, I'll explain it in layman's terms. Fundamentally rights are given to everyone INCLUDING Christians. That means that their FREE EXERCISE of their religion isn't relegated to behind their PRIVATE doors with the CURTAINS drawn. It means IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE... which INCLUDES the classroom. Where Democrats came up with the idea that ONLY minority OPINIONS are sacrosanct is beyond me. That's was trully laughable. That the American Society has been conned into a Communist viewpoint of religion... that it should be prohobited AND illegal to discuss one's religion openly and freely. That interpretation has never been an American tradition. That's a Soviet Union tradition!

Article Comments are contributed by our readers, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Valley News staff. The name listed as the author for comments cannot be verified; Comment authors are not guaranteed to be who they claim they are.

 

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