Lack of accountability and recordkeeping keys to outside groups’ ability to improperly distribute non-educational material to students during school day
Today the ACLU of Kentucky notified Kentucky’s public school superintendents about the results from its statewide investigation into outside groups’ ability to actively distribute non-educational materials, including religious literature, directly to elementary school students during school hours. In a letter describing the results, the ACLU of Kentucky indicates it obtained public records documenting that public school officials in several districts have allowed a particular religious group — the Gideons International — “into elementary schools during the school day solely for the purpose of actively distributing copies of New Testament Bibles directly to students.” The ACLU further noted that this practice — which has been going on in some districts for decades — violates clearly established federal law, and that the organization will assess future incidents of similar conduct for potential litigation.
Commenting about the investigation, ACLU of Kentucky Executive Director Michael Aldridge stated, “Our investigation revealed that a major contributing factor to these ongoing violations is the school districts’ lack of policies on the matter, particularly as it relates to who is responsible for approving these groups’ requests and the criteria for when (and under what circumstances) such requests can be approved.” He added, “Our investigation also revealed that the Gideons have, in the past, intentionally exploited districts’ lack of a centralized decision-maker for these types of requests by specifically instructing its members to seek approval for their in-school Bible distribution efforts ‘at the lowest level of authority and progress higher only as may be required.’” Aldridge added, “The Gideons further emphasized to its members that requesting approval from school boards ‘normally should be avoided because of the potential for unfavorable publicity by the news media.’”
Because Kentucky’s public school districts mostly lack explicit policies, the ACLU contends, they are susceptible to instances in which lower level employees allow these groups into the classroom to actively distribute religious literature to students despite clearly established law to the contrary. The ACLU also indicates that by providing notice of the results of its investigation to superintendents, it hopes that Kentucky’s public school districts will ensure future compliance with federal law thus avoiding potential litigation.