Mat-Su

Mat-Su school board considers mandatory classroom ‘moment of silence’ to start the day

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pandemic, Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board is considering whether to require a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day. Supporters say it is an opportunity for “quiet reflection” before diving into the day’s activities, but others are characterizing it as potentially burdensome for teachers, taking away meaning from moments of silence and possibly a bridge to prayer in school.

Under the draft policy, titled “School Moment of Silence/Personal Meditation,” principals would require first period or homeroom teachers across grade levels to take one to two minutes daily for a moment of silence.

The proposed policy’s preamble says, “The School Board finds that in the hectic society of today, too few persons are able to experience even a moment of quiet reflection before plunging headlong into the activities of daily life. Young persons are particularly affected by the absence of an opportunity for a moment of quiet reflection.”

The policy states that a “teacher may not make suggestions as to the nature of any reflection that a student may engage in during the moment of silence.”

Under the policy, teachers would be asked to encourage parents of students to talk about how to use the moment of silence.

When he introduced the proposal at an August meeting, school board president Ryan Ponder said, “The only thing being required in class is the classroom to remain quiet for 60 to 120 seconds each day so that reflection can be fostered and for parents to be informed of this by their first period homeroom teacher. Absolutely nothing more.”

School board member Thomas Bergey cited social media chatter that the move was a religiously focused endeavor, but he characterized it as “actually a classroom management tool.” Bergey said he supported the policy fully.

ADVERTISEMENT

Board member Jeff Taylor also voiced support, saying he’d asked a couple teachers what they thought of the idea and one told him it would be “one of the most valuable minutes” in their day.

But some in the community are raising concerns.

Former longtime school board member Sarah Welton, a licensed professional counselor and pastor of an American Baptist church in Palmer, said the policy “is a steppingstone to adding something that might turn into something like prayer.”

The policy is unnecessary, she said. It adds a burden to teachers and takes away from the power of silent moments, usually reserved for tragedy or death.

Origins of the proposal

The language of the board’s proposal does not specifically use the term prayer.

According to federal guidelines around prayer and religion in public schools, under the First Amendment, teachers, administrators and school employees can’t encourage or discourage prayer while working in official capacities, nor can they actively participate in the activity with students, per the U.S. Department of Education. During designated moments of silence, students are free to pray or not pray, according to the guidelines.

The idea of the moment of silence provision was brought to the school board president by Rabbi Mendy Greenberg with the Mat-Su Jewish Center, part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Greenberg wasn’t available for a phone interview but responded to questions via text. He said that shortly after he and his wife moved to the Mat-Su, the community came together to think of ideas “to increase goodness and kindness,” and how to grow compassion among young people, after the murder of David Grunwald. The 16-year-old was killed in a shocking murder that resulted in charges against four teens.

The ideas included distribution of small charity boxes that encourage putting change in daily to donate. Greenberg said another idea was to start children’s days “with a moment of quiet reflection.”

“The hope is that starting every day with a calm, reflective moment will have an impact on the rest of the day to make better choices, to be kinder and more tolerant in their surroundings,” Greenberg said. “The children are never told what to think about by their teachers. Their parents are the ones to share with them important morals, ethics and family values.”

Greenberg said he spoke with Ponder about those topics over the last several years and said Ponder liked the idea, did his own research and opted to bring it up at the school board meeting.

“If everybody maintains the expectation that this really is just a moment of silence for students to self-reflect on their own without any government overbearing or religious overbearing, I think it’s a fine move,” Mat-Su schools superintendent Randy Trani said in an interview this week. “I just hope that everybody keeps in mind that that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

There are some mechanics that will need to be worked out, however, including the proposal’s stipulation that teachers can’t make suggestions about the nature of reflection. Practically, there will have to be some direction for elementary school students, Trani said.

“When you roll into the room with 24 brand-new kindergartners on the first day of school, they don’t know how to sit quietly, so clearly they’re gonna have to be taught that,” Trani said.

Students with individualized education programs, known as IEPs, would also need to be taken into consideration.

“If a student is unable to sit quietly, you can’t expect them to sit quietly,” Trani said.

He said he hadn’t heard much feedback in support of or opposition to the policy.

ADVERTISEMENT

[New Mat-Su school policy threatens transgender students, advocates say. It may also be illegal.]

Similar moves in other states

Some language in the Mat-Su proposal is nearly identical to similar policies in states nationwide, which Trani said was probably purposeful.

Republican governors in Arizona in April and Florida last year, have signed similar policies into law. The debate and disagreements over such policies go back decades, and several states have provisions for moments of silence. In some states, like Oklahoma, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Illinois, the moment is compulsory. In states like Michigan and Delaware, it’s optional.

According to Trani, board president Ponder provided the draft language to the board’s attorney to ensure it wasn’t “running afoul of any legislation, any church and state things,” Trani said.

After the proposal was OK’d, Ponder brought it forward, Trani said.

Ponder said he was not available for an interview but agreed to answer questions by email. He disagreed that a moment silence could be a steppingstone to religion or prayer in school.

“I suspect there are already thousands of silent prayers being offered in schools throughout the state on a daily basis, especially during final exams, regardless of whether there is a moment of silence/personal meditation policy in place,” he said.

He responded to the critique that the moment adds a burden to teacher with the quote, “I think, therefore I am,” from French philosopher René Descartes, and said that allowing and encouraging students time for reflection provides an opportunity to find answers to their deep questions.

ADVERTISEMENT

Asked about the critique that daily moments of silence detract from the power of silent moments more broadly, Ponder said that while the practice is understood by adults, such moments are less frequent for children.

“Therefore, the daily moment of silence may likely enhance the power of silent moments reserved for tragedy, given kids will have had daily practice and be more familiar with how to reflect,” he said.

A steppingstone to prayer?

School board member Dwight Probasco said in an interview that since the proposal was presented, community members have asked whether the intent of the proposal was to start the day with prayer, and that he doesn’t know the answer.

He said he has questions about enforcement, given the 40 schools in the district, and that he’d like to hear from site administrators and teachers about the feasibility of implementing such a policy.

“I think it puts a lot on principals and teachers,” Probasco said.

He said that while the proposal states teachers may not make suggestions about the nature of the reflection, the process of explaining the moment of silence is somewhat suggestive. Probasco also noted the moment only affects students who attend school in-person, and not the 13% of students who are home-schooled who would be exempt from the policy, which he called an equity issue.

Students are also allowed, under the First Amendment, to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Probasco asked whether a parent or student could opt out of the moment of silence.

Probasco said that there are appropriate times for a moment of silence, like remembering 9/11, but that mandating a moment of silence at the start of each school day devalues it.

Welton, the pastor of a Palmer Baptist church that she described as being “decidedly on the liberal side,” also said she felt making a moment usually reserved for a recent death or tragedy into a daily occurrence will make it less special. Also, she said a moment of silence can be “excruciating” for someone with ADHD, and that it’s one more thing to put on teachers.

Welton said she’d also been approached about proposing a moment of silence to the board several years ago.

She discussed the issue at the time with then-superintendent Deena Bishop, and the two agreed it “was kind of like a steppingstone to putting religion among schools,” Welton said.

“To me personally, it is a steppingstone to adding something that might turn into something like prayer,” Welton said. “And I do not want anyone to feel some kind of obligation and some kind of pressure to pray or to think about religious things at any time, because that’s a personal conscience thing.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The board is set to consider the proposal again during its upcoming meeting on Sept. 21.

• • •


Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

Sponsored