HILLIARD, Ohio (WSYX) — Two topics packed the Hilliard City Schools board meeting Monday each drawing a common line between factions frequently at odds over the role of public education – religious education during the school day and showing support for students identifying as LGBTQ.
On the agenda was the district’s Released Time for Religious Instruction policy, which allows students to receive off-campus religious instruction during the school day.
The idea was brought up in March by representatives of LifeWise Academy, a Bible-based education program in Hilliard. The policy allows students to opt-out of extracurricular instruction, such as music or art, to attend off-campus religious instruction during regular school hours.
“This program takes students from the school day,” Hilliard parent Sarah Myers said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for public school. The district is here to serve the students. Not the programs.”
Not on the agenda but on many minds of those who attended Monday’s meeting was a badge worn by teachers who wish to show support for LGBTQ students.
However, it wasn’t the badge itself that agitated some, but a QR code on the back of the badge that links teachers to resources provided by an organization working with the largest teacher union in the nation, the National Education Association.
The topic often raised the room’s temperature.
“The website that you get to has very inappropriate information,” Lisa Chaffee, director for Ohio Parents Rights and Education, said. “Why would a teacher need that for a resource even a sex education teacher? Providing teachers with resources that are borderline pornographic has no merit.”
Others disputed that assertion.
“I think it’s valuable for students to know they are welcome, and they can be treated with dignity,” Sarah Myers said.
Myers said she had a second-grade daughter in the district.
“I want her to see that," Myers said. “I want her to see students be accepted. I want her to see her friends and other families be supported and encouraged.”
While the topics were different, they polarized people in similar ways over what and how public schools instruct and guide students.
"Music, theatre and art are important classes for these kids," a parent said objecting to allowing students to be excused to attend religious instruction off campus. "They shaped me when I was a student."
The new policy allows parents to give consent for their children to receive religious instruction during school hours, but without missing the core curriculum. State law dictates that students can't miss core instruction but can be released for religious instruction during extra curriculars, such as art and music.
According to Ohio Code: As used in this section, "released time" means a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious instruction conducted by a private entity off school district property.
Some at the meeting said they believed the policy would benefit students.
“I know research shows and I’ve seen firsthand, the positive effects religious instructions on students,” a speaker told board members during the meeting. “As a parent, this is the opportunity I would like my student to have.”
But others saw the policy as another diversion away from non-academic classes traditionally taught at public schools.
"Music, theater and art are important classes for these kids," said another parent. "They shaped me when I was a student."
In a statement to ABC6/FOX28, Joel Penton, the executive director and founder of LifeWise Academy said:
“We are pleased that the school board has decided to move forward with a released time religious instruction policy, joining the majority of Ohio school districts. This policy will provide students and families with more options from programs wishing to educate students, including LifeWise Academy.”
According to LifeWise Academy, it will be serving 125 schools this school year. LifeWise Academy said the concept of Released Time Religious Instruction (RTRI) has been upheld multiple times at the US Supreme Court.
“RTRI guidelines both guard against government establishment of any one religion and allow expression of the right to free exercise of religion, also protected by the first amendment,” continued the LifeWise Academy statement.
Board members approved the new policy 3-2.
The topic of the LGBTQ badges worn by some teachers came up during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting.
The badges were distributed by the National Education Association Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer+ Caucus, an organization within the NEA that seeks to provide support and education for LGBTQ teachers, according to its website.
The QR code sending a user to the website is on the back of the badge. On the front of the badge are the words “I’m here. Safe person. Safe space.”
“I think the intent is positive the effect is negative,” said Chaffee.
District officials have asked teachers to cover the QR code on the badges.
District officials have said the intent of the badge is to send a message of safety and inclusion for all students and that the resources linked in the QR code were for adult learning.
Students at Monday’s meeting shared their support for teachers wearing the badges.
“Those badges ... make us feel safe. They make us feel included. They make us feel like we aren’t alone in the battle we face every day when we wake up,” one student said.
"There is no way teachers wearing a badge is sexualizing students," another student said. "Teachers helped me feel safe and comfortable in myself and having supportive and safe teachers saved my life."
While no action was taken by the board on the subject, Superintendent Dave Stewart had previously issued a statement that in part expressed the following:
“The badges in question were provided to any teacher who requested one by the National Education Association (NEA) and Hilliard Education Association (HEA). The front of the badge that is visible when worn says “I’m Here.” The intent of the badge is a message of safety and inclusion for all students.
“The QR code on the back of the badge is not there to be shared with students; rather, it is provided to adults by the NEA should they be interested in learning more about LGTBQ+ issues and supporting LGBTQ+ students
“Teachers were reminded that if asked about the “I’m Here” message on the badge, their response should be age appropriate.
“Teachers were advised that it may be in their best interest to cover the QR code on the back of the badge.”