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Schools rebut charge of impeding efforts to start secular club

Haywood County Schools’ attorney has countered accusations that Pisgah High School administrators allegedly hampered a student’s attempt to form a club for atheists and non-religious students. 


“No one ever told any student they couldn’t have a club,” said Dr. Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent. 

Nolte said it was disheartening for the school system to be falsely accused of discriminating against a student for their religious persuasion.

To wit, the school system embarked on its own fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of the accusation.

“We were trying to figure out where did this landslide of accusations come from when we were not aware a currently enrolled student had even requested a club,” Nolte said.

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School system attorney Pat Smathers concluded the accusations were “without merit and baseless.” He took the investigation a step further, however, than merely assessing the validity of the complaint. Smathers accused the student’s family of ulterior motives and perpetrating a publicity stunt.

“In my opinion, the allegations arise from a manufactured controversy caused by (the father’s) influence on his children and a desire for publicity and potential financial gain,” Smathers wrote in conclusion of his investigation.

The student, who was championed for standing up for the rights of non-religious students, ended up receiving online donations and a scholarship to attend a summer camp.

Smathers also accused the national groups that rallied to the student’s side as being complicit in the publicity stunt due to their own quest for notoriety.

“Publicly disseminating erroneous information, locally and nationally, has done a great disservice to Pisgah High School, its staff and the entire community,” Smathers wrote in a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had intervened in the issue on the student’s behalf.

What was intended as a defense of the school system, however, has garnered even more negative media attention, including an article in the Washington Post.

Smathers’ response was criticized as a “retaliatory action against the family under the guise of an investigation,” according to a statement the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By probing the family’s private life, including personal attacks, the school “resorted to tactics that serve to dissuade student free expression,” according to a response from the ACLU.

But Nolte said the school system was merely replying to the initial accusations and had a right to clear itself in the public eye.

“We don’t want people thinking we discriminate against students. Never ever do we want people to think that,” Nolte said. “When you work really, really hard to have lots of opportunities for lots of children and people do this, it is really unfortunate.”

There are roughly 30 student clubs at Pisgah, including a Diversity club and Alliance for Equality club.


How it all started

A student at Pisgah High School, Ben Wilson, approached a school administrator last fall about forming a club for atheist students. Wilson claims he was discouraged from starting the club. The school system claims that isn’t the case, and that the administrator would have worked with the student but the student broke off contact after their initial meetings.

The Pisgah principal then got a letter from the national Student Secular Alliance in November. The principal did not respond to the letter, and Ben later left the school.

Ben’s sister then decided she wanted to form the club herself. However, she never contacted Pisgah administrators or the school system to tell them about her desire. Instead, Kalei enlisted the backing of national organizations to lodge a complaint against the school system for violating federal law by denying the formation of a secular club.

School leaders were blindsided by a threatening legal letter from the national groups in February and said they had no idea a Pisgah student was seeking to form such a club.

School administrators immediately set the wheels in motion to get such a club off the ground. Within a few days, a faculty advisor was named and the club’s first meeting date was set.

The national groups that had intervened claimed victory, and it seemed the kerfuffle was over.

But meanwhile, the school system had asked its attorney to look into the accusation and, if it wasn’t true, to ferret out the potential motives behind it.

“The accusations included threatening legal language,” Nolte said. “Anytime we are accused of doing something we immediately investigate that accusation.”

Nolte said it is disappointing that disparaging online comments are still circulating in cyberspace.

“It is still very frustrating for us that these comments are still out there,” Nolte said. “What we are trying to do is correct the false and misleading information that some people continue to issue, either in spite of the correct information being provided or perhaps in ignorance of it.”

Nolte questioned why the national organizations that were so quick to publicize their complaint haven’t taken steps to reel it back in.

 “What is frustrating is there has been no attempt by the people who spread the false and inaccurate information to say, ‘You know, they really didn’t discriminate against anyone,’” Nolte said.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a statement that it was standing by its original assessment, however.

“It is unfortunate that Haywood County School officials and Attorney Smathers seem to have retaliated against students for bringing forth valid complaints about their ability to form a secular club at their school,” according to a written statement from the organization. “We are troubled by the report, which contains many factual errors and focuses on matters that are irrelevant to forming a student club.”

It suggested Smathers’ investigation may have been defamatory against individuals and organizations.

Meanwhile, the student that was initially seeking the secular club at Pisgah has dropped her involvement in it.



A matter of perspective

Haywood County Schools and a student wishing to form a secular club for non-religious students have different versions of the events that transpired.

Student’s version: A student at Pisgah High School asked an administrator there about forming a secular club for atheist students in October. 

School’s version: The same.

Student’s version: He was also told the club could only form if he could recruit a faculty advisor, per school policy. But the student was unable to find a faculty advisor on his own, and the administrator didn’t offer to help him find one, effectively stymieing the club’s formation.

School’s version: The administrator shared the regulations and criteria for forming a club, which include crafting a mission statement and finding a faculty sponsor. The student did not provide a mission statement nor come up with a faculty sponsor.

Student’s version: He was told the club “wouldn’t fit in” and was pointed to other already existing clubs as an alternative.

School’s version: The administrator suggested he join one of two existing clubs, namely the Diversity Club or Alliance for Equality Club. She also expressed concern over whether a secular club would be successful due to the school’s make-up and the fact the student was relatively new to the school.

Student’s version: The student felt his attempt to form a club was being intentionally scuttled and complained to the national Student Secular Alliance.

School’s version: The administrator would have continued working the student to find a resolution, but the student broke off contact and was not heard from after the initial meetings.

Student’s version: The Student Secular Alliance sent a letter to the principal in November 2013 complaining that a student’s attempt to start a club was being stymied and asked for a response, but never got a reply.

School’s version: The principal was not aware of the issue and did not respond to the letter, believing it was irrelevant.

Student’s version: The student who initially inquired about a secular club left Pisgah, but his sister still wanted to form the club. She admits that she never contacted school administrators herself, nor made her desire to form a club known. She assumed the school’s failure to reply to the first letter was a signal that such a club was unwelcome.

School’s version: The school was never contacted by the sister. The school system was unaware there was a current student still wanting to form a secular club.

Student’s version: A letter accusing the school of violating federal law was sent to the school system in February by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. The complaint was also issued to media outlets.

School’s version: School system officials were blindsided by the public accusation. The student should have reached out to the school and to the school system leaders to make her desire to form a secular club known. Had she done so, they would have facilitated the formation of the club, but they were never given that chance. The false accusations unfairly harmed the school system’s reputation.

Student’s version: The principal immediately found a faculty advisor and the first meeting of the club was scheduled.

School’s version: The same.

Student’s version: As news of the event circulated online, supporters cheered the student for standing up for the rights of non-Christians in a Christian-dominated world. Supporters asked about ways to donate to the club. A website to facilitate donations was created in response, but funds weren’t actively sought. Funds were ultimately returned.

School’s version: The desire to raise money and garner publicity was an ulterior motive all along.

Student’s version: The student felt bullied by peers and threatened by a retaliatory investigation launched by the school system’s attorney that violated her family’s privacy, and so she canceled her participation in the club before the first meeting was held.

School’s version: The school system takes any allegations of violating a student’s rights seriously. The investigation by the school’s attorney was merely a fact-finding mission to determine whether the allegations were founded or baseless. The principal noticed a post on Facebook that the student was backing out of the club. The principal has not been able to verify any threats, harassment or bullying perpetrated against the student at school by other students.

The version of events here is based on past interviews with the student and her father, interviews with the school system, complaint letters from the national groups, and an investigation of the allegations by the school system’s attorney.

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