Reported by: Marci Manley, KARK 4 News
"Referring to these students who were in need of help as being poor in spirit," she said flipping through a folder of papers.
That’s what Debbie Doss recalls the seminar started off with, encouraging teachers to befriend students with broken homes and low self-esteem.
"I think mentoring is a good thing, but I think there’s a point at which it should stop," Doss said.
"We learned about this and thought there were some things worth looking into. Instead of debating what would or wouldn’t be discussed we asked if we could have someone attend," said Free Thinker LeeWood Thomas. "Turns out our worst fears were confirmed."
"Teaching is not our primary vocation. Knowing Christ and making him known is our calling," Doss said, reading from a slide presented at the conference. "Okay, that’s very clearly a focus on religion Christianity specifically in the classroom."
According to Charlie Conklin, Executive Director of the Nehemiah Network that sponsored the church-hosted event, the sole point of the seminar was inspiration.
"We are encouraging teachers to demonstrate the love of Jesus to their students on a regular basis," he said. "Really showing love and support a loving supportive environment for children."
Both sides agree teachers, both from private and public schools, heard about what was legal.
"We wanted to make sure they knew what they could and could not do," Conklin said. "what are the legal boundaries of what you can say and what you can’t say in terms of separation of church and state."
"It’s all kind of skirting the edge of what’s legal," Doss countered.
She told us teachers were advised on ways they could incorporate Jesus and Christianity into the classroom without actually having to bring it up to students.
"They told us things like you can wear Christian jewelry, like a gold cross on a chain or a tie pin in the classroom. You could post scripture on the wall, as long as it was included in something else. Like if you had a quote from Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. If they said a scripture, you could put it on the wall as something a historic figure said," Doss said. "They told us you could keep a Bible on the desk as a reference book for history or literature. It was all meant to provide opportunities for kids to ask questions and for the teacher to express their beliefs."
Conklin confirms that the conference did cover the issue of a Bible being available in the classroom.
"It was highlighted there was no problem with the Bible being in a classroom. That’s not any different than another textbook another history book being in the classroom," he said. "What you do with the Bible in the classroom is something that was not delved into, but it was highlighted having a Bible in the classroom is perfectly legal."
Doss claims the speakers during the conference referred to proselytizing to students, or converting them to Christianity.
"We had a keynote speaker who talked about very specifically things that a teacher could do to skirt around the letter of the law," she said. "He actually spoke about proselytizing students."
"Basically tell these teachers how to create opportunities in which they could side skirt or blatantly step over the line of the separation of church and state," Thomas concurred as a concern.
"The word proselytize was used during the conference, but not in that context," Conklin countered. "I can tell you they were told not to proselytize."
According to Conklin, recruiting students isn’t the purpose of the seminar.
"There’s not any recruiting, in fact — if anything there was again a real time spent on distinguishing on what could be done and what couldn’t be," he said. "There were a lot of options discussed so they could practically live out their faith, but the key point was the encouragement of investing into children’s lives."
To clarify what can legally be done in the classroom and how Called to Teach approached the Constitution, we turned to UALR’s Dean of the William H. Bowen Law School John DiPippa.
"They can’t bring religion as religion into the classroom," he told us.
According to DiPippa, he had reviewed some of the content on the Called to Teach website. Based on the content he was able to view he didn’t see a conflict between the conference materials and the Constitution.
"Religion can motivate teachers, and this website is trying to get teachers who have religious beliefs to think about that," he said.
That is, religious beliefs that drive teachers to be caring and loving, even if those beliefs are of a Christian basis, aren’t inherently illegal.
"They are always very clear to say, that doesn’t mean you should preach ," he said. "As long as teachers don’t proselytize in the classroom, what they believe they are doing is part of their right both to religion and speech."
But there is a definite line teachers shouldn’t deviate from.
If she believes God wants her [hypothetical teacher] to reach out to lonely children and make them feel loved her intent to do that is because God wants her to. But as long as she doesn’t try to recruit the child to her church, it’s fine," he said. "Whether some of the individuals who join the group understand that distinction remains to be seen."
And that’s the rub for some critics. We must rely on teachers to police themselves and make sure they aren’t trying to proselytize students right into the pews.
"You have one adult and you know a couple dozen children. You’ve got the ability and the opportunity as the teacher to then expose the children to their particular world view or theology," Thomas said.
But Conklin highlights the stress the seminar places on abiding by the law, giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
"Teachers were never encouraged to break the law," he said. "You can be both — you can be a christian live out your faith and still abide by church and state, showing that love and that healthy education environment to the kids."
But what about those issues of suggesting certain clothing, talking about your weekend and being sure to mention church services and talking about those with students, or posting scripture on the classroom walls.
"Intent plus action would be the problem . What you’ve described would really be teachers stepping over the line. Teachers using positions of trust to begin to recruit students for their church or putting Bible quotes on the walls that would not be related to an academic study of the Bible," DiPippa said.
But again, the two individuals who attended the conference disagree on if that was really being communicated.
So, if the curriculum appears to be legal, should teachers receive professional development credits for the Christian-based program?
"It’s concerning to me that the state might be involved in giving credits for this kind of course ," Doss said.
Organizers did promote the program as an opportunity to receive a certificate for completion of six developmental education credits.
"They did receive a certificate of completion for the course," Conklin said.
Conklin told us the Arkansas Department of Education had not certified the curriculum, and that the program never sought to have the curriculum certified.
"That’s a decision, on whether the credits will be accepted, made by individual districts," Conklin said. "We never intended to confuse or mislead anyone into thinking they were certified by the Arkansas Department of Education."
The ADE confirms certification hadn’t been applied for. And Conklin reiterated the certificate was meant to only confirm completion of the course, not guarantee credits would be awarded.
"I talked to all of the teachers in my groups, most of them were from Bryant and Monticello public schools," Doss said. "They all believed we would receive those credits. Every conference I have ever been to provided the same type of certificate that we then turned in and were awarded those certified credits. I thought it was a bit misleading "
"We never meant to mislead anyone. It was a clear statement that a certificate of completion would be available for those teachers who wanted to submit it to their districts to see if they would be approved," Conklin said.
For Doss, she feels its clear the intent of the program is to create opportunities for teachers to break the law and indoctrinate less fortunate kids into Christianity.
"These are the kids that are the most desperate, the most in need of friendship that are being pushed in this direction," she said.
"Would you say that is at all accurate?" we asked Conklin
"No," he replied "That was clearly a interpretation of an individual."
Perhaps that’s what this all comes down to, whether it provide safety or pose a danger, that the appropriate, legal implementation of this program is contingent upon the interpretation of the individual standing at the front of a class full of students.
Bryant and Monticello School Districts reported none of their teachers have submitted the certificate to request credits. According to the Arkansas Department of Education, officials haven’t heard from other districts across the state.
Conklin said the fourth Called To Teach Seminar is on the books for July 26, 2012.