WEST COVINA (CBSLA.com) — Religious freedom advocates are calling on the West Covina Unified School District to adopt policy changes and issue a formal apology after an alleged bullying incident involving a 6-year-old Christian student.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom, an Irvine-based nonprofit law firm, issued a letter Monday on behalf of Isaiah Martinez, a first grader at Merced Elementary School.
On Dec. 13. 2013, Martinez took traditional candy canes as Christmas gifts for his teacher, Valerie Lu, and classmates, according to attorney Robert Tyler.
Each candy cane came with a message attached that recited the history of the candy cane, including references to the candy as a symbol of Jesus Christ, according to the letter (PDF) dated Jan. 6.
Attorneys say when Martinez brought the candy canes to class, Lu took possession of them and after conferring with school principal Gordon Pfitzer, told Martinez that “Jesus is not allowed in school.”
Lu, at the apparent direction of Pfitzer, then ripped the candy cane message from each candy cane, threw them in the trash and returned the candy canes back to Martinez for delivery to his classmates, according to attorneys.
Martinez’s sister, Alexandra Cantu, told CBS2’s Jeff Nguyen that her younger brother merely wanted to give the candy to his classmates.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, but my teacher took the letters off and threw them in the trash. And I had to give it to them without the letters,’” Cantu said.
Martinez’s family says the school finally allowed him to hand out the candy canes with the notes on them, but he had to do it off campus and on the last day of school before everybody left for winter break.
In a statement, Tyler said the actions of the school district were “hostile and intimidating,” and called on officials to adopt an official policy that expressly prohibits school officials, including teachers, from “adopting any action or from engaging in any expression that can reasonably be viewed by a religiously affiliated student as disapproval of the student’s religion or hostile toward the student’s religion.”
“Advocates for Faith & Freedom has experienced a surge in phone calls from students and their parents across the country who are victims of religiously motivated bullying; not bullying by other students, but bullying by teachers and school officials,” said Tyler. “The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that public schools are becoming a place of hostility toward Christian and other religiously-based worldviews.”
In addition to policy changes, Tyler also called for the West Covina Unified School District to implement training for teachers and other school officials on the First Amendment, “particularly as it relates to the rights of students to express themselves with religious viewpoints.”
In a statement released Monday, Superintendent Debra Kaplan said, “At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner.”