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Christmas traditions, classroom sharing, and agenda of faith and freedom advocates may have driven allegations against Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School in Temecula Valley Unified School District.
The TVUSD withheld commenting beyond a statement offered on January 14, 2013, stating they were researching the allegations made by Murrieta based Advocates for Faith and Freedom attorneys.
On January 21, at the TVUSD Board meeting, officials completed their investigation into the matter. Here is the response from Principal Ami Paradise, and teacher Tammy Williams, at last allowed to share their side of the story to the board of trustees and all present.
As stated by Tammy Williams, First Grade teacher at Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School
Hello Members of the Board,
My name is Tammy Williams and I am a first grade teacher at Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School. Last Tuesday, my reputation was questioned by the family of a student in my class and the Advocates for Faith and Freedom with accusations that I was hostile and bullied a child in my class over her religious beliefs. I wanted to make a statement here tonight to respond to these untrue
On Thursday, December 19th my class was getting our classroom ready for our holiday party that was to occur the next morning. We took longer than normal putting things away to ensure that the desks were clean and book boxes were put away so that tables could be used for our centers. This was normally something we did on Fridays. Because of this, we were running behind and I still had six students who needed to do their sharing. I had a very limited amount of time and needed to make sure all students had time to share. Now remember, this is sharing. They were not oral reports. Students were asked to share a family tradition. It could be anything, not just a Christmas tradition. During sharing, I work with students on looking at the audience and using clear voices. We also work on listening skills and asking questions.
This student was not the last student to present as had been reported. I still had a couple of students after her (which was the Student of the Day and the Student of the Week). When she started her share, she pulled out her golden star that I held for her as she pulled out her prepared speech written by one of her parents. This was unusual because rarely does a student have a prepared statement to read.
As I held the star, the student began to read her statement. I helped her with a few words that she was having trouble with. I decided that I would have the student stop after sharing about Mary and Joseph. I felt that it would take too long and I still needed her to take her question and I had a few clarifying questions for her as well.
At this point, I simply said the following, “Ok, stop here and you get one question.” She simply put her paper down and picked a student who asked her a question. I also asked her, “Who puts the star on the tree? Do you take turns?” I even suggested that her dad could lift her up to let her put it on the tree. After that, she put her star away and sat with the class while we finished with the other students. I monitor all students this way. She at no time complained or acted sad. She was as happy as always.
I want to be very clear about the following: At no time did I ever tell the student that she could not read the bottom section because it was a Bible verse nor did she ask if she could finish. I never told her to “Stop right there!” or “Go take your seat!” or reprimand her in front of the class for sharing from the Bible. It just did not happen. This subject matter was never discussed. I decided to stop her at that point so the other students would get their share in before the bell rang. My students have always been free to share their ideas.
What saddens me is that this story was twisted into lies and brought to the media. I have never sat down and discussed this directly with the family or the student. I am instead being used to push an agenda for the Advocates for Faith and Freedom.
In closing, I want to express how blessed I am to work at a school that has stood behind me 100% and have had a tremendous amount of support from current parents and past parents who knew that the accusations were false just by hearing the story. They know that I would never behave in the manner in which I have been accused.
As stated by Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School Principal, Ami Paradise:
Honorable Board Members,
My name is Ami Paradise and I am the principal of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School. I stand before you tonight as an educator, wife, mother of two great little boys, and I’d like to state that I am a Christian.
Over the past week, I have received countless phone calls and 126 mean-spirited emails from across the country as a result of the claims that the Advocates of Faith and Freedom have made against one of my teachers, the school district, and myself. These claims are simply not true.
When I met with the parent on December 20, 2013, she shared that she and her husband were upset that their child was unable to finish her presentation and that they thought it was because it contained a Bible verse. There were absolutely no claims of humiliation or bullying by the classroom teacher. No claims that their child was told to take her seat or that she could not talk about the Bible. These claims have been made in the midst of a media spotlight in order to sensationalize a story. The truth is, there were other students left to present before the end of the day, and there was just not enough time.
Furthermore, when I met with this parent I never told her that her child may not share her beliefs aloud to other students nor did I try to stifle her freedom of speech in any way. I told the parent that I would follow up with the classroom teacher, and I sent her the results of my findings along with the copy of the board policy regarding religion on December 24th, 2013. I have not heard from her since. Not once to tell me that she did not agree with my findings, not once to ask for a classroom change for her child. In fact, with the exception of today, this student has attended school every day since this incident, in the same exact classroom where this alleged incident occurred.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not address the classroom teacher in the center of this controversy– Mrs. Tammy Williams. Mrs. Tammy Williams is one of the finest educators I have ever worked with. She is an AMAZING first grade teacher, taught my own son last year, and I would not hesitate to put my younger son in her class. She does not deserve the harassment or bullying that she has received, the questioning of her professional skills or judgment, or the claims that she harmed this child in any way.
I stand behind Mrs. Tammy Williams 110% and find it extremely unfortunate that the Advocates for Faith and Freedom have irrevocably caused damage to her good name.
The days will pass and this story will not be at the top of the news for long, but the damage that it has done to the good names of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School, Mrs. Tammy Williams, and myself will be difficult to repair.