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Boy Punished for Drawing a Cross! Persecution Complex? Or Complex Persecution?

5 years ago
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Nothing trips the hair-trigger reflexes of culture warriors on the Christian right faster than some hare-brained act of multi-culty political correctness by school officials against a poor grade schooler who even hints at a religious reference in class. Remember the case of Zachary Hood, a New Jersey first-grader barred from reading a religiously neutral version of the Jacob and Esau story?

Add the hypersensitivity that surrounds the Christmas season these days, with regular accusations of a "war on religion" being waged by Jesus-hating secularists, and it's easy to see why the story of a second-grader in Massachusetts quickly became a cause célèbre -- and why the rage may have overrun the reality.

It all began on Monday when the local paper, The Taunton Gazette, ran a story about a father incensed that his 8-year-old son was sent home from school and was required to undergo a psychological evaluation because he drew a stick figure Jesus on the cross.

The father, Chester Johnson, said that earlier this month officials at Maxham Elementary School told him his son, a second-grader, had created a "violent image." The boy's teacher, Johnson said, had asked students to draw something that reminded them of Christmas, and the Johnson family had recently returned from a trip to see the Christmas display at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette.

The boy's drawing depicted a crucified Jesus with Xs covering his eyes to signify that he had died (although Jesus seems to be grinning), and it was arguably more Easter than Christmas. But so be it. The school sent the boy home on Wednesday, Dec. 2, the day he drew the picture, and told Johnson he needed to be sent for a psychological evaluation. Johnson did that the next day, and the boy was back at school the following Monday. But Johnson was still understandably upset, and school officials agreed to have the boy transfer to another grade school.

That did not mollify his father. "He's 8 years old. They overreacted," he told the newspaper. "As far as I'm concerned, they're violating his religion."

That was a concern shared by critics everywhere as the story zipped around the blogosphere. "It's hard to imagine a more clueless, knee-jerk response than the one given by this school," Ed Morrissey fumed at "The real threat here is that the gross stupidity will infect the students."

A Boston Herald follow-up on Tuesday reported that Taunton's mayor called the school superintendent from his vacation and asked her to apologize both privately and publicly to the family of the boy, to pay for the psychiatrist's evaluation, and to revamp school policy so that it never happens again. The story collected 720 comments on the paper's site, few of them exuding Christmas cheer or good will toward the school.

Jesuit priest Robert Araujo, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago and a Taunton native, held up the story as another example of the decline of Massachusetts education (though he did disclose that his cousin is the mayor's assistant). At the blog of Our Sunday Visitor, a leading Catholic weekly, Mary DeTurris Poust was also indignant: "Jesus has been moved so far off the radar screen of society that what once was understood as a sign and symbol of the ultimate sacrifice and gift by our Savior has been turned into evidence of potential threatening behavior."

But after a few days on the cross themselves -- and staying silent because of confidentiality issues -- Taunton school officials began telling a much different story. In a statement posted on the system's Web site, school officials said that in fact the boy had never been suspended, the teacher never requested that the children make a drawing that reminded them of Christmas or any religious holiday, and that the drawing that the boy's father distributed to the media is in fact not the one the boy's teacher discovered and was concerned about.

The school said it could not provide further information for reasons of confidentiality, but it noted that until Chester Johnson spoke to the newspaper the family and school officials had been "working together in a cooperative and positive manner." It said all proper protocols had been followed and that school officials would do the same thing again if presented with similar circumstances:
"It is unfortunate that the actions of our district staff have been classified as 'religious' in nature when, in fact, they were based solely on the wellbeing of the student. At this time of year, Christmas is one of many religious and secular holidays. Taunton, known as The Christmas City, takes pride as a community in celebrating this Christian holiday together with Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and many others. In the school district, it is our goal to provide the opportunity for all students to be well-rounded, and it is our responsibility to help them attain their social, emotional and academic goals regardless of their religious affiliation."
Johnson acknowledged that his son was not suspended but insisted the drawing was the one that upset the teacher. He added that his son wrote his name above the Christ figure and said it was a self-portrait. It was also reported that in June 2008 a fifth-grade student was suspended from a local middle school for a day after he drew a stick figure that appeared to show him shooting his teacher and a classmate -- an event that led some to believe the incident with the second-grader may have been related to that episode and heightened concern over possible school violence since the Columbine massacre.

Still, Johnson wasn't backing down. The Boston Globe said he "held court" for the media at his girlfriend's apartment Tuesday, insisting that the school apologize and that his son's rights were violated. "It hurts me that they did this to my kid," Johnson said. "They can't mess with our religion; they owe us a small lump sum for this.''

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