Kalei Wilson, 15, claims that the Pisgah assistant principal scuttled an attempt last fall to start a club for non-religious students. So she summoned backup from the national Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The groups accused Haywood County Schools of violating federal law and the rights of non-religious students by not letting them form a club, according to a pointed letter from the groups last week.
Haywood County School officials quickly rectified the issue, and a club has now been created. For the record, top school administrators said they weren’t even aware of the issue until receiving the ominous letter.
“It truly was news to us,” said Dr. Bill Nolte, assistant superintendant.
Today was the first day back to school for Kalei after making media headlines last week.
“It was awkward,” Kalei said.
But in a way, that’s exactly her point. She shouldn’t have to feel awkward at school just because she doesn’t believe in God. She hopes the club will help atheists feel accepted and open the eyes of Christian students who she feels assume everyone around them shares their religion.
Kalei’s father said he is proud of his daughter, but is naturally concerned for her. She has gotten some threats and nasty messages, he said.
“But she is pretty tough-skinned. Tougher than I am,” Cash Wilson said.
The idea of forming a secular club was initially broached by Kalei’s brother last fall. He talked to Pisgah’s assistant principal about the idea and claims he was told such a club wouldn’t “fit in” at Pisgah and was pointed toward other clubs already in existence as an alternative.
The biggest hurdle he was presented, however, was finding a faculty sponsor to act as an advisor to the club. There wasn’t anyone to serve as the faculty advisor, he was allegedly told by the assistant principal, and without one, the club couldn’t exist.
“That requirement cannot be a backdoor veto to forming a group,” according to the letter Haywood Schools received last week. “Denying access to a student group, if only because no faculty monitor exists, is impermissible.”
However, school officials at central office again said they hadn’t heard about the desire to form such a club.
Superintendent Dr. Anne Garrett said had she known students were in need of a faculty advisor for their club, she would have made it happen sooner.
“We want to make sure every club and every organization is represented,” Garrett said. “We are working to make sure it is resolved in an amicable way.”
Indeed, by Monday, just a few days after a letter from the national groups brought the issue to school officials’ attention, everything had fallen into place: Pisgah’s principal approved the club, not one but two faculty advisors had come forward to sponsor the club, and the club’s first meeting had been scheduled.
The Secular Student Alliance fielded 28 complaints nationally last year from students who felt their attempt to start a club was met with resistance from school officials.
Many shared a similar experience: they were told there wasn’t a faculty member available to sponsor the club.
But Nolte said the Haywood school system has never turned down a student’s request for a club.
Pisgah High School has 30 clubs. Some are curriculum based — like the Math Club, or Spanish Club. Others are “non-curricular,” like the Equality Club or the Fellowship for Christian Athletes.
As official school clubs, they are required to have a faculty advisor, not simply a parent volunteer. Clubs can’t be discriminated against, so if a faculty advisor is provided for a Christian club, the same must be made available for a secular club.
Nolte said the school system has always enabled club requests by finding a staff member to take it on.
“We will go out of our way to find a faculty advisor. We work with students to try to find those and we always have and always will,” Nolte said. “We might say, ‘Did you know we had this one, this one and this one? Would any of those work?’ and if they explained, ‘No, mine is different and this is how it is different,’ then we would assist them in establishing this club.”
Although Haywood School officials were somewhat taken aback by the letter they received last week from the Freedom For Religion Foundation, which was also cosigned by the American Civil Liberties Union, Jessica Kirsner with the Secular Student Alliance doesn’t think the letter was over-the-top.
The letter made a case for why non-religious students need an environment where they can freely express their views and have a sense of belonging.
“Too often students who identify as nonreligious encounter resistance, harassment and bullying in their schools,” the letter states.
A club would allow nonreligious students to “build community” and “provide a safe space for these students to gather to address these issues.”
But it also spelled out the legal ramifications should the school system deny the formation of a secular club, citing the Equal Access Act.
“Students must be given equal access, and a fair opportunity to meet, and not be discriminated against, or the law has been violated,” the letter states.
Kirsner points out that last week’s letter was actually a follow-up to a much gentler one sent to Pisgah Principal Greg Bailey last fall that got no response.
“When we send out a letter to a school, we try and do so calmly and with an eye towards educating administrators on the rights students have and their responsibilities to these students,” Kirsner said.
But that letter got no response. So the Secular Student Alliance had “to take things a step further and discuss the legal consequences with the school.”
Help from the Secular Student Alliance gives students both courage and a sense of legitimacy when they are unsure what their rights are, Kirsner said.
Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said Haywood County Schools takes students rights very seriously.
“We don’t discriminate based on religion or non-religion,” Nolte said.
But Kalei said she isn’t sure she would have gotten this far without the backing from the national groups.
“I don’t feel like they would have changed their mind just based on my opinion,” Kalei said.
Kalei’s father said Christian influence is everywhere in the schools. Non-Christian students feel ostracized and guilty for not subscribing to the majority belief, he said.
But Wilson wagers many students who are agnostic or atheist won’t admit it for fear of losing friends or it affecting their social status. The club would hopefully change that.
“If more people were out, then maybe it would be more accepted,” Wilson said.
Kalei is now looking forward to the club’s first meeting later this month — a pizza party. Kalei thinks she has at least 10 and maybe 15 students interested in joining so far.
“That’s more than some of the clubs they already have,” she said.
But Kalei isn’t holding her breath that the ruckus she caused will blow over any time soon. She looks forward to a couple of years from now when the presence of a secular club is just the norm, one many students join, and new freshmen coming in don’t remember the history of it being any other way.
And, Kalei pointed out, students of all persuasions will be welcome.
“I hope some kids from the Christian club come and learn about what an atheist is,” she said.