Fury was growing last week as more parents learned about the allegations made by Advocates for Faith and Freedom, where they asserted first-grader Brynn Williams was denied the right to free expression in the classroom on Dec. 18, 2013, when she gave a presentation about the Star of Bethlehem and what it meant to her family at Christmas-time.
The Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) refused to comment on the situation until the Tuesday, Jan. 21 school board meeting. During the Public Comment section, Ami Paradise, principal at Jackson Elementary, and Tammy Williams, the first grade teacher, spoke to school board members and the public about the claims being made by the legal group Advocates for Faith and Freedom.
The teacher and principal would not comment prior to the school board meeting. As of Wednesday, Jan. 29, TVUSD will not offer any more information and an investigation into the situation remains open.
Statement from Tammy Williams, first grade teacher at Jackson
“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 accusations.
“On Thursday, December 19, 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. 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.”
Statement from 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 would 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 because of the claims that the Advocates of Faith and Freedom have made against one of my teachers, the school district, and me. 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 24, 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 I will be difficult to repair.”
A first grader in Temecula Valley was denied finishing her presentation on Christmas when she started to talk about the
Bible, according to attorneys from Advocates of Faith and Freedom.
The family of student Brynn Williams alleges that on Dec. 18, 2013 a teacher asked the first graders at Helen Hunt-Jackson Elementary School to share with their classmates a family tradition in their home.
The attorneys from the Murrieta-based nonprofit law firm said Brynn Williams brought in the “Star of Bethlehem”. The star was an ornament that is placed on the top of her family’s Christmas tree. Williams told the class the star “represented her family’s tradition of remembering why Christmas is celebrated.” Attorneys said the presentation was one minute.
Attorneys said Brynn began her presentation with the following statement: “Our Christmas tradition is to put a star on top of our tree. It is named the Star of Bethlehem. The three kings followed the star to find baby Jesus, the Savior of the world. John…”
Brynn’s teacher, according to attorneys, said, “Stop! Go take your seat!” and Brynn was not allowed to finish her presentation. The rest of Brynn’s presentation included reciting a Bible verse from the Gospel of John, John 3:16.
The only first grader not allowed to finish her presentation was Brynn, attorneys said. The teacher allegedly explained to Brynn and all the other students that the Bible and its verses were not allowed to be shared in class.
Attorneys said school principal Ami Paradise told Brynn’s mother Gina Williams that the teacher had to stop the presentation because “we don’t want to offend other students.”
A letter was sent to the Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) by Attorney Robert Tyler demanding a new policy be adopted. The new policy would prohibit school officials from expressing disapproval or hostility toward religion or toward religious viewpoints expressed by students.
“The disapproval and hostility that Christian students have come to experience in our nation’s public schools has become epidemic,” Tyler said in a statement. “I hope that TVUSD will take the lead role in adopting a model policy to prohibit this abuse that has become all too common place for religious-minded students.”
Melanie Norton, the communications and community relations coordinator for TVUSD, said the school district has been fielding phone calls from people all across the nation who were upset about the situation.
“The district is currently investigating the matter and cannot comment right now,” said Norton. “There is no lawsuit, just a 10-page complaint letter from the law firm.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 22 close to 50 people showed up at Jackson Elementary to protest in support of Brynn Williams and her right to talk about the Star of Bethlehem in school.
Last week, the district released a statement stating the district “respects all students’ rights under the Constitution and takes very seriously any allegation of discrimination.”
Editor’s Note: Contact with school officials, including the principal and teacher, has been made and a follow-up story is in the works to provide the latest developments in the case.