Jewish families settle lawsuit against Delaware school district that sponsored religion
"Jane Doe" plaintiff tells of her family's experience in exclusive interview with JewsOnFirst.org
by JewsOnFirst.org, February 26, 2008
Two Jewish families who sued a Delaware school district for unconstitutionally sponsoring religion announced today that they have reached a negotiated settlement with the district. The settlement will require the Indian River School District, which spreads over a large part of southeast Delaware, to implement new policies regarding religion. It also provides compensation to the two families, whose children suffered religious discrimination.
Last year JewsOnFirst reported on the case, focusing on the Dobrich family, who felt compelled by threats and anti-semitic harassment to move away from the community. Today we focus on the other family, named "Doe" in the lawsuit, who remained in the school district during the almost three years since the filing of the lawsuit.
Now Jane Doe has given an exclusive interview to JewsOnFirst.org, describing her family's experiences leading up to the lawsuit and while the litigation was going on. Doe said she played a significant role in writing the new policies on religion for the school district. She said that, while the settlement lacks some points the families hoped to win at trial, "it gets enforceable and constitutional policies into place immediately."
She said she decided to talk with JewsOnFirst because her family hopes to help others avoid what they experienced. She said: "As a family, we feel it is important that we do whatever we can to educate others so that more children and families donít have to suffer through what we have. We only asked that the school district and school board comply with constitutional policies and apologize for their clearly unconstitutional behavior. It's sad for both our families that we have had to endure what we have, considering this should have been a simple matter to resolve."
District imposed Christianity on school children
First, during a 2004 high school graduation ceremony, a pastor invited by the school board singled out Samantha Dobrich, the sole Jewish graduate. According to the complaint filed in the case, the pastor singled out Samantha in his invocation: "I also pray for one specific student, that You be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus' name and for his sake."
Even worse than the ruined graduation was the community's hostile response when the Dobrich family sought to raise their concerns about the graduation and the pastor's role in it. According to the lawsuit, the Dobrich family became the focus of public hostility, including telephoned threats. Samantha's younger brother Alexander's classmates began calling him "Jew boy" and accused him of "killing Christ." He became fearful about wearing his yarmulke.
In August 2004, the Indian River school board responded to the Dobrich family by scheduling a discussion of the graduation. During that meeting, though, the board allowed a mob to verbally assault the Dobriches and a handful of others who spoke in support of pluralism and church-state separation.
Jane Doe said that, with some community members making statements such as "a prayer isnít worth anything if it isnít a prayer to Jesus Christ," she felt that Judaism itself was also under attack.
It took courage to attend that school board meeting, Doe said. It was daunting simply to pass through the hostile mob turned out by local churches and the local talk radio station in support of prayer in the schools.
Dobriches forced to move away; Does "endured three years of hell"
The Doe family remained in the community. That was very hard, Jane Doe said. "We endured three years of hell, toughing it out by ourselves. It was hard on us, emotionally and physically."
The Does' request for anonymity, prompted in part by the searing memory of the August 2004 school board meeting, was approved by the U.S. District judge supervising the case. That was very important for the Does, Jane Doe said. "We are very thankful that the judge allowed us to proceed anonymously. It would have been almost impossible to continue to live here and pursue this lawsuit," she added, "without the thin veil of protection of that anonymity."
Jane Doe was astonished, is still astonished, she said, to hear people call her family cowards for choosing to sue anonymously. Staying mute meant letting pass without response or correction upsetting reports in the local media, she notes.
"The media's been rough on us," she said. "They kept repeating myths, like we were represented by the ACLU." Some proponents of school prayer expressed hostility to the ACLU, characterizing it as an instigator of the lawsuit. Jane Doe said that, when an ACLU official spoke at the tumultuous August 2004 meeting, the crowd booed her and told her to "go back up north."
But the ACLU never represented the Does and Dobriches. From the start of their case, Thomas Allingham, a partner in the Wilmington office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, represented them pro bono.
With the local atmosphere so roiled in the largely rural community served by the district, simply raising the issue of church-state separation was challenging. "It's social suicide to bring up this issue," Doe said. And even after all this time and the satisfaction of correcting the district's policies through the settlement, she still has moments when she wonders "why as a family we have to fight this?"
Doe's assessment of the risks of raising church-state issues is consistent with what JewsOnFirst learned in the course of reporting on the school religion case: there are Jews who have lived in that part of Delaware for years without revealing their Jewish identities.
Even though the Doe family's religion was not specified in the lawsuit, Jane Doe said that they nonetheless have been "characterized as Jewish." She said that prompted her to consider the issue of identity: "As a family, we are proud of our religious heritage. As Jews it has been important to speak out when our children and others were treated unjustly. We all define ourselves in many ways, individually we are Jewish, but as part of a bigger picture, we are just a family within a much larger society who couldn't just sit by and watch when we witnessed wrongs committed in the name of religion."
Doe recalled the period when the judge was considering their request to sue anonymously as very difficult for her family. Even then, though, she said, "We knew that we were doing the right thing. We had a very basic bottom line -- to protect our children." However, she added, "It still feels like they're in harm's way."
The anonymity imposes its own burdens. "We want to be able to talk with people about what's going on with us, about the fear that we felt, about the things the school board has done to drag this case into places where it never should have gone." At one point, she said members of the school board went to the local media, in violation of the judge's orders. "They violated the court order on confidentiality, and nobody did anything about it. And we couldn't say anything about it."
The settlement provides for continuing protection of the Doe family's identity.
August 2004 meeting a searing memory
"It's almost unimaginable that events in that meeting unfolded as they did," Jane Doe said. "People in that room knew us. The school board just let it go on and on."
It was daunting, she said, simply to pass through the hostile crowd turned out by local churches and the local talk radio station. Recalling what she encountered when she parked her car at that board meeting, she said, "I've always been a confident person, but I was scared."
What she saw was a huge crowd, later estimated by reporters to have been about 800 people. "The parking lot was full. There was a prayer circle in front of the building. I saw a custodian directing traffic; I went up to him and asked if there was another way in."
She found a way in through the back, Jane Doe said. When she entered the meeting room she saw that the Dobrich family had already found seats.
As she took a seat, Doe said, she observed the wife of one of the school board members calling her church, encouraging members to turn out to the meeting.
When the meeting got underway, she recalled, "it was clear that it was a mob that turned out and they derided anyone who didn't agree with injecting religion into public schools."
During the meeting, Doe said, "a guy stood up and said the last one to oppose school prayer was [atheist leader] Madalyn Murray O'Hair and she disappeared never to be seen again." (O'Hair was abducted and murdered). Hearing that, Doe said, "sent chills down my spine. But people laughed, and they hooted and hollered, and applauded this guy" Doe said, adding, "He used to be a school board member."
No restraint on hostile crowd
She cannot forget the behavior of elected officials -- the school board and the two state legislators who attended. "The board did nothing to stop or dissuade the verbal abuse. There was a lot of rhetoric about majority rule, especially by the representatives to the General Assembly," she said. "But what makes a society great is not majority rule -- thatís easy enough -- but a society should be measured by the protection of minority rights and the underrepresented. In this case, that is our public school children."
The two families kept trying to effect a change in the school board's behavior, according to their attorney Thomas Allingham. "Even after that meeting, we made repeated efforts, orally and in writing, to persuade the school district to abide by the Constitution," Allingham told JewsOnFirst. But the district repeatedly rebuffed them, he said. "Not only did the district decline our requests to sit down and discuss our concerns, they refused for months even to respond to our letters."
Eventually, said, Allingham, the families felt they had no choice but to sue the district in federal court.
It was not an easy decision, Jane Doe said. "I would think it would be obvious to any parent that suing the public school district where your child attends school would be a last resort"
District must adopt constitutional policies on religion
According to Allingham, the concept of real-world examples originated with the plaintiffs, but was accepted by the school district. "The district offered a couple of its own examples that were incorporated in the settlement," he said.
Additionally, the settlement requires all district personnel -- including teachers, administrators and coaches -- to read the religion policies and the accompanying examples and then sign a written acknowledgement that they have done so. Said Jane Doe: "We entrust our children to our public schools. It's crucial that the teachers and guidance counselors who are in daily contact with them understand the boundaries of religious establishment and expression."
After the settlement was made public, Allingham told JewsOnFirst that the legal team working on the case was pleased that "after years of struggle," the school district is in compliance with the First Amendment of the Constitution. "This settlement can be the basis for a new atmosphere of respect for religious diversity throughout the district," said Allingham.
Jason Gosselin, the attorney for the district, said that the school board was "pleased" with the settlement and the policies it mandates. "We've negotiated since late spring 2006," said Gosselin, a partner in the Drinker Biddle & Reath law firm. "There were a lot of issues to work through." He said that the board must adopt the policies within 30 days, but that they approved the text during the negotiating process.
One issue -- the school board's insistence on opening its meetings with sectarian prayers -- was not resolved in the settlement. The Does are continuing their effort to have a court put an end to the practice.
Settlement will protect students in the future
She expects that the new policies and the required teacher sign-off will protect students in the future from Jordan's experience with a middle school Bible club in 2004.
Their experience with Jordan's elementary school and Jamie's schools had been good, until then, with Jordan actually getting singled out for being Jewish in an esteem-building way, Jane Doe said. So they were caught unaware by what amounted to missionary activity at Jordan's middle school. "Teachers were proselytizing little kids," Doe said.
It was difficult, at first, for the Does to understand what was happening at the school, Jane Doe said, because the children and their friends didn't understand that the district was fostering coercive religious activity. The Does themselves were hardly expecting that a group of 11-year-old children would suddenly get religion at school.
She recounted how, one day, this suddenly became clear to them. Jordan came home that day and replied to the standard "how did your day go" saying things hadn't gone at all well that day.
"'What's going on?' I asked, and, Jordan said: 'Mom, I feel bad because all my friends are pressuring me to go to Bible Club."
Bible Club? Jordan explained that the school was holding a Christian club during lunch hour; a science teacher was leading it. Participating children got to jump to the head of the lunch line. The teacher leading the club gave donuts to the attendees, upping the pressure to attend. No other clubs were offered at that time.
Children who did not participate were effectively singled out as different, said Doe. "Children were negatively singled out in their school for being Jewish!"
The Does had chosen that particular middle school so Jordan could remain with a tight circle of friends from elementary school. And now, she said, those friends were becoming caught up in school- sponsored fundamentalist Christianity. As the first year of middle school wore on, Jordan took pains to avoid being identified as Jewish. "Perhaps more than anything, this broke my heart," said Doe. "There was no doubt that the religious favoritism at the school was interfering with our rights as parents to raise our children in our religion."
The Does discussed the situation and, said Jane Doe, "We realized it was not constitutional."
Doe told how she hit a stone wall when she complained to the school about the Bible club. She said she explained that it was not a club her child could attend. "One school official I talked with kept insisting that Jordan could -- should -- participate," Jewish identity notwithstanding.
Doe recounted her frustration over the official's failure to acknowledge that Judaism was an important part of Jordan's identity. Finally, said Doe, to impress on her that "Judaism was not an option," I told her that Jordan's great grandmother's entire village was wiped out in the Holocaust. She responded to that by saying 'Jordan should go to Bible Club and check it out,'" Doe recounted.
Doe said the official argued that the Bible club would be appropriate for Jordan "'because they study Old Testament, too.' 'Well,' I asked her, 'does that mean they also study the New Testament?' And she said, 'well, yes, they do.'"
After that conversation, said Doe, "I knew it would be a terrible problem." And it was, for the rest of the 2004 school year.
During the lawsuit Doe said she learned that a Catholic student's mother had a similar encounter with the same school official in a previous year. "The district seems to have consistently ignored complaints of religious coercion and proselytizing in its schools," Doe said. "I believe the district thought they could scare us off as well. They may be surprised at how tenacious we have been."
In the lawsuit, the school board claimed they didn't know about the Bible club, Doe said, yet "one of the board member's children was in the club; she's in a yearbook picture of the club." The middle school principal was also aware of what was going on, Doe added. She believes that the teachers and district officials had to know that what they were doing was not constitutional.
"My child was really discriminated against by the district," she concluded. "And the district was also violating our rights as parents."
The Bible club wasn't the first time the Does had experienced inappropriate religion in the schools. "We knew there was a Bible distribution in Jordan's elementary school," Jane Doe said. "We knew it wasn't right, but figured it only happened once a year." Later, she said, they learned that the school was calling children out of class to get their Bibles.
"In a child's mind, that is being singled out," Doe said. "It was intimidating to a young child."
District's scuttling of settlement in 2006 hard on the Doe family
I remember that it was during Hanukkah and we were hoping for a peaceful holiday at home with our children. Instead we were greeted with media reports about the settlement terms -- even one that we'd agreed would be confidential."
On December 22nd, the Sussex Post quoted a lawyer for one of the school board members discussing details of the settlement. The paper also reported that the school board member, Reginald Helms, planned to vote against the settlement because it was time for Christians to draw a line in the sand. Helms, who was at the time governed by a court order of confidentiality, told the paper:"Even though we are Christians, we have rights also and I just feel that sometimes they want to take our rights away from us."
In his interview with the Post, Helms also said that the infamous August 2004 meeting evidenced "overwhelming support for the board in their stance on prayer before board meetings." He said that justified voting against the settlement.
In February of 2006, the board voted unanimously to reject the settlement. The rejection prompted the district's insurer to sue the board, a case that is still pending. (See our report.)
The scuttling of the 2006 agreement marked the onset of a particularly difficult time for the Doe family. Jane Doe said. "We were really struggling. Our children were really hurt."
At that point, Jane Doe said, her family experienced a resurgence of the hostility surrounding the August 2004 meeting. "We were bullied by certain school board members. A local elected official even went on a radio station to discuss what was supposed to be a confidential part of the settlement." Again, she found it frustrating that she could not reply to their statements.
During that period, she said, the family was "forced to conclude that the board was really acting in bad faith." She added that, early in the court-ordered mediation that preceded the scuttled agreement, "the district rejected our request for an apology."
Settlement award paid from school district's insurance
"I wanted to settle the claims against the district so that the money wouldn't be taken from the students themselves," Jane Doe said. I didn't want the students and teachers to have to suffer monetarily on account of the school board and the former superintendent, who should have just apologized for wrongful acts and stopped causing further stress and pain to the families."
She said that the case has left the Does worse off than before -- especially because several years of Jordan's and Jamie's childhood were taken away. "But, said Jane Doe, morally, we're richer."
A trial would have served to focus public attention on what Doe called "the bad actions" of the school district. "But," she said, "this is not a matter of revenge or the satisfaction we could have felt by their dirty laundry being aired. We have always been mindful to consider how this would affect the students in the district and the community."
Additionally, she said, the settlement allows the Does to continue their challenge of the constitutionality of the school board's practice of opening its meetings with a prayer. "I firmly believe that sectarian prayer by a public school board is wrong," Doe said. "The new settlement will allow my family to continue to pursue this issue. We have given up all rights to attorneyís fees, expenses and damages. It can now become a strictly constitutional matter."
According to attorney Thomas Allingham, discovery in that case is complete and it is likely that both sides will be filing summary judgment briefs.
In addition to the constitutional issue of school board prayer, Jane Doe hopes that her family's experience will resonate beyond southeastern Delaware. She said: "I hope that our experience will help others to wake up and see how our country is being damaged by the divisiveness that has been created by a relatively small number of extreme Christian fundamentalists. If other Christians will begin to distance themselves from this group and realize that politics and religion are being used to promote hate towards religious minorities, our pain will not be for naught."
She continued: "Religion can be a beautiful source of inspiration but parents and qualified religious leaders should hold the responsibility for teaching it, certainly not our public school system."