Christian Groups in High Schools: Good Boundaries Make Good Neighbours

Recently, a friend wrote about a problem at the high school he serves as a teacher. Apparently, a staff worker with a well-known Christian organization (let’s call it “Jesus Youth,” since I’m pretty sure there is no such group) has been volunteering at the school. Trouble arose, however, when this staffer volunteered to drive some kids to a drama festival some distance away for the weekend, and sent home permission slips to parents emblazoned with the logo of “Jesus Youth,” and not the school. A parent (whom I’m calling “Mr. Fraun”) complained that he didn’t want some missionary taking his daughter on a school outing.

I was asked to comment, and I would be interested to know what you think of the issues involved. Here it is, with all of the particulars changed to protect identities.

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Dear Carlo,

Thanks for bringing to my attention the letter of Mr. Fraun to the school board. It raises a couple of crucial issues that concern all of us, and I am glad to be able to offer a few comments that I hope will be useful to you and your school.

My sense is that Mr. Fraun is raising at least two legitimate points. On the narrow point in question, namely, the permission slip for the trip to McGee River, I agree with him that the slip ought to have been from the school in order to indicate the school’s responsibility for this trip. In that regard, it wouldn’t matter whether the slip was from a religious group (such as Jesus Youth) or any other group. If the trip was a school trip, as it seems to have been, then it ought to have been officially run by the school, down to the permission slip.

On the broader point, namely, the involvement of Jesus Youth (JY) staff or other professional religious workers in the public schools, I think Mr. Fraun also is correct to be concerned about full disclosure. Every volunteer at a school comes from a particular religious or philosophical point of view, of course, and will perhaps, depending on circumstances, speak out of that particular point of view in the course of working with students. I would do so, Mr. Fraun would do so, and so on. I don’t see Mr. Fraun saying that Christians cannot volunteer at schools, as he does not rule out people of other faiths–which would be, of course, absurd anyhow. So the muzzling of volunteers’ religious and philosophical commitments seems not to be his aim. (If it is, then we would have a bone of contention between us.)

What I read him to say is that the JY staff member in question has a job whose explicit mission includes proselytizing. Having a “missionary” (Mr. Fraun’s term, and one I think is entirely apt) volunteering at the school, and one who does not seem always to make clear to students, staff, and parents that he is a missionary, is a serious problem for me, too–and I say this as someone whose faith commitment is very close to the ethos of JY.

One of my tests for genuine multiculturalism is to “turn the tables.” In this case, how would I feel, as a Christian parent, about our son going on a school trip in the company of a Mormon missionary, or a Muslim missionary, or a Marxist missionary? Not good. Indeed, I would be upset with a school that allowed such a person such access to, and authority over, my child.

So what are groups like JY to do? Are they to be banned from high schools entirely?

No. They can help students run clubs at school, the way other interested volunteers can support a club focused on Sikhism or Buddhism, or GLBT issues, or other matters of religion, philosophy, morality, and politics. They can also serve as resources for schools interested in exploring various religions and philosophies as part of a genuine curricular investigation.

They might provide other services to the school, but frankly I think they have to be circumspect in the extreme, and the staff has to be vigilant, to ensure that such service is neither tied to privilege for their particular group on a quid pro quo basis (“We helped you do this, so you give us special access to the students”) nor itself exploited as an occasion for proselytizing (“Well, kids, it’ll be a long drive to McGee River, so let’s talk: What do you think about God?”).

We parents presume that teachers have been trained to handle issues of multiculturalism, sensitivity to religious difference, preservation of open discourse without privileging a particular outlook, and so on. These issues are difficult and complex, to be sure, and I have sadly come to believe that many administrators and teachers actually don’t understand and handle these issues very well. But then again, most of us in the general public don’t, either–and nor do our leaders in politics, the courts, the educational system, and the mass media!

All the more likely, then, that someone whose job it is to evangelize students (as well as to confirm believers in their faith) may well not understand and abide by the strictures of public school accommodation of, and respect for, different views. Nor may that person, however well-meaning, see how his or her explicit advocacy of a particular religion or philosophy renders him or her now less able to perform the volunteer role, as he or she is now possibly viewed with apprehension and even fear by students who resist that particular view. According to Mr. Fraun’s account, at least, the JY staffer seems to be in that category. To seize on the particular example in view, to send home JY permission slips for a school trip seems to me to be a pretty stark misunderstanding of how JY should be relating to the public school system.

Mr. Fraun or I may have gotten the facts of the situation wrong. I apologize if I have done so and thus misunderstood what happened and particularly if I have misunderstood the JY staffer’s actions. I hope you will set me straight if that is so. Otherwise, then, I hope that these remarks are in some way helpful to you as you consider what to think and do next.

With warm regards,

John