The story about the Taunton, Mass., 8-year-old "suspended" and subjected to a psychiatric evaluation for drawing Jesus Christ on the cross is more complicated than first reported. I still see the current hullaballoo as a species of zero-tolerance gone too far, but the initial story now demands some revision and further explanation.
Taunton Mayor Charles Crowley on Tuesday spoke out about the row, saying school Superintendent Julie Hackett should apologize to the boy's family and ordering the district to pay the for the psychiatric exam the child had to undergo as a condition of returning to class.
But Hackett pushed back, categorically denying the Maxham Elementary School second grader was ever suspended and saying the father's account of what happened was incomplete at best.
Meantime, Chester Johnson, the 8-year-old's father, elaborated to journalists on what school authorities allegedly told him. GateHouse News Service in Massachusetts reports:
(T)he father of the second-grade student said on Tuesday that school officials were concerned that the 8-year-old boy may have intended to depict himself, rather than Jesus Christ, on the cross.
“They told me there was a kid at Taunton High School who drew a picture of knives and guns, then killed himself,” said Chester Johnson, the boy’s father.
Apparently, the teacher and the school's principal and counselor thought the boy might have been in some sort of distress. But the father tells it differently.
The child initially insisted that the picture depicted Jesus on the cross, but after being questioned for the third time, the boy told school officials that the drawing was of himself asleep on the cross, Johnson said Tuesday. Based on the reactions of the teacher and principal, the boy sensed that he was in trouble for drawing Jesus, but then changed his story in an effort to avoid being disciplined, the father said.
Johnson also told a reporter that "the teacher and principal questioned his son three times about the drawing before notifying a parent." Behavior like that invites lawsuits, which, of course, Johnson is contemplating. (For what it's worth, an ACLU attorney said, "They owe this kid an apology and his family an apology.")
But Superintendent Hackett sent a statement to Taunton city officials and the press that disputes several key points. According to the Boston Globe:
(T)he student was never suspended and that neither he nor other students at the Maxham Elementary School were asked by their teacher to sketch something that reminded them of Christmas or any religious holiday, as the newspaper reported and the father suggested.
She said it was unclear whether the boy -- who put his name above his stick-figure portrait of Christ on the cross -- even drew it in school.
"The inaccuracies in the original media story have resulted in a great deal of criticism and scrutiny of the system that is unwarranted," she said.
She said the boy's drawing was seen as a potential cry for help when the student identified himself, rather than Jesus, as the figure on the cross, which sparked the teacher to alert the school's principal and staff psychologist.
She declined to comment on whether the teacher had reason to believe that the student might be crying out for help.
She added: "Religion had nothing to do with this at all.''
Hackett pointed out that Taunton is known as "The Christmas City." Visitors come from across the region to see the annual lighting on the Taunton green, according to the city's website.
Although many other commentators have played up the religious angle of the story, I was -- and remain -- most interested in the zero-tolerance and therapeutic aspects of the case. Any whiff of deviance is a potential threat. When in doubt, call the shrinks (or the cops). That view is further supported by this story in Wednesday's Boston Herald:
(Johnson) acknowledged that the boy was not suspended, but said he was told the boy could not go back to school until he received counseling, which Johnson said he considers the equivalent of a suspension. He said his son was out Dec. 3 and 4.
The boy was allowed to return to class Dec. 7 after a two-day risk assessment by Taunton licensed social worker Helene Titelbaum reported, “(The boy) does not appear to be a threat to himself or others at this time.”
According to (Melissa Cromwell, the boy's mother) and Johnson, officials at the Lowell M. Maxham School were concerned the boy’s drawing of Jesus nailed to the cross suggested possible violent tendencies.
And I think it comes back to that. It could have been the picture of a crucified Christ, Santa Claus machine-gunning Iraqis, or bunnies with assault rifles. The school would have reacted the same -- with horror and concern -- to any artistic depiction of violence, even though more often than not, the drawings have no relationship to harmful behavior.
(Incidentally, a friend e-mailed in reply to my earlier post: "My sister teaches kindergarten in Cleveland. She had a kid who drew a picture of Jesus with a gun. Jesus was shooting the little children rather than loving them. This kid's dad is in prison for murder. Nothing happened with this kid when my sister went to see the principal to voice her concern." Evidently, public school administrators are latter-day Manichees.)
"It is unfortunate that the actions of our district staff have been classified as 'religious' in nature when, in fact, they were based solely on the well-being of the student," the Taunton district’s statement said.
They're so concerned about the student's well-being that they're willing to traumatize him to keep him "safe."