Rock Hill school board debates student release for Bible study

MCT file

As Rock Hill school board members wrestle with a proposal to allow release-time religious study, they are seeking input from parents and School Improvement Council members.

During a Monday night workshop in which board members voiced deeply divided views on the proposal, the board decided to conduct an email survey of parents. They also wanted to reach out to School Improvement Council members for input.

“I am a little concerned that no parent has asked for this,” board chairman Jim Vining said during the discussion. “Normally, a policy like this is drawn by parent requests.”

Board member Jane Sharp announced she would not support the proposal. “It would open us up to a lot of different things,” she said. “I am not pleased with the policy.”

But board member Walter Brown has strongly supported the proposal, saying schools allow absences for athletics and other activities and they should allow them for religious study as well.

The board gave initial approval in a 4-3 vote in late March to a policy that would allow recognized religious groups to apply to the district for permission to offer instruction during an elective class period one day a week.

The instruction would take place off the school campus and the sponsoring group would provide transportation.

Absences for religious study would not be allowed during core academic classes, such as English, math, science and social studies, under the proposal.

Sharp and board members Mildred Douglas and Ann Reid voted against the policy. Douglas and Reid have argued against removing students during the school day.

Board members delayed a vote on the proposal for the April meeting, saying they wanted more time to study it. The proposal is now scheduled for a second and final vote at the May 23 school board meeting.

The policy was created at the request of the nonprofit School Ministries of Rock Hill Inc., affiliated with the national School Ministries Inc.

The group wants to provide release-time Bible education to Rock Hill middle school students during the school day, said the Rev. Bill Simpson, pastor of Manchester Creek Community Church in Rock Hill.

Simpson has said he is leading a coalition of about 18 churches that have lent their support. Many of those churches provided letters of support to the board.

Under a revised proposal discussed by the board Monday, release would be granted to students in grades six to eight, with written permission of the parents.

Under the revised proposal, faculty and staff will not be able to promote or discourage participation. The proposal also says if students are returned to school late, the sponsoring group would lose the right to offer a release-time program.

Superintendent Kelly Pew said the sponsoring group would be required to provide background checks and sex offender clearance for those who would have contact with students.

Board members asked Pew what views have been expressed by middle school principals about the proposal.

“They have concerns about students missing elective classes,” Pew told the board. “There is a level of concern.”

Board member Helena Miller said the policy would allow “a wide variety of groups” to apply for release-time religious study, including some that “are not middle of the road.”

Said Vining: “If you are uncomfortable about different groups, you should vote against it.” Vining made mention of Muslim and Hindu or “extreme” groups.

Vining said he wants to see whether the proposal is supported by members of the School Improvement Councils at middle schools. The councils are an advisory group of parent leaders and school staff members.

Board members discussed including an academic grade point requirement for students to participate in a release-time program, in the same way they do for students who participate in athletics.

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077