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Lewis: Students not forced to pray

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By Jeremie Samuel

The American Civil Liberties Union has made accusations that school administrators and officials at the  Jacqueline Harris Preparatory Academy are pressing  religious beliefs on its’ students.  In a meeting last Thursday, The Director of JHPA, Celestine Lewis, responded to the allegations that employees of the school proselytized students.

At Last Thursday’s meeting, Lewis said she really doesn’t know where the allegations stem from aside from an event which was attended by the ACLU’s Susan Watson. The event, which took place during March of this year, was a memorial for Trayvon Martin and informational for minors on interacting with law enforcement. It was held at the Zion Hope Primitive Baptist Church where many children, including two JHPA students read Bible scriptures and prayed.

“The catch was that it was not a Jacqueline Harris sponsored event,” Lewis said. She also added that the event wasn’t even an Escambia County School District sponsored event.

“I believe that this stemmed from that because she was there,” Lewis said.

The Jacqueline Harris Preparatory Academy was opened in 2001 and is known for its emphasis on building a moral foundation. Lewis says that the school is a haven for some of the students.

Despite the allegations, Lewis still believes character education is imperative and does not believe that the charter school is being targeted for their approach.

“I think in this particular incident [Watson] read into something and thought something that was not to be. She thought it was a school-sponsored activity, which it was not.”

There were also allegations of JHPA employees compelling students to pray. At Thursday’s meeting faculty members vehemently denied those claims.

“As a new teacher, I don’t agree with it,” said Takita Waters. “Since I’ve been here I’ve seen nothing like that. Jacqueline Harris focuses on building morals.”

Public schools are banned from conducting prayers based on the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Supreme Court established the prohibition on state-sponsored prayers after two major decisions, Engel v. Vitale, (1962); School Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, (1963).

Susan Watson, director of the Northwest Regional ACLU of Florida, said in a statement that their goal is not to have Jacqueline Harris lose its charter or file a lawsuit.

“Instead, our goal is to ensure that the [School] District is a good steward of public funds. Taxpayers should not fund religion.”
Jacqueline Harris is working with the school district to ensure that they are within the guidelines of the law. Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas who received a letter from the ACLU on the subject said the school is not at risk and the district is waiting for Jacqueline Harris to develop their response while working with their attorney.

“The school is being cooperative with me in terms of making sure they’re doing what is right and at the same time protecting the rights of the students.” said Thomas. “Once they respond to the allegations we’ll take it from there.”

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