2017-08-23 / Front Page

Bellwood staff to receive ‘sensitivity’ training


Amy Warner claims that on May 30, a Bellwood PE teacher denied her daughter's request to be exempt from running while fasting in observance of Ramadan. ASH DANIELAmy Warner claims that on May 30, a Bellwood PE teacher denied her daughter's request to be exempt from running while fasting in observance of Ramadan. ASH DANIELEmployees at Bellwood Elementary School will be required to undergo cultural sensitivity training following an investigation into a parent’s claim that a teacher at the northeastern Chesterfield school violated her daughter’s civil rights.

Francine Bouldin, executive director of human resources and employee services for Chesterfield County Public Schools, contacted Amy Warner earlier this month and informed her that the probe of her allegation had been completed.

“While I am unable to share with you the manner in which specific employees will be addressed as a result of the investigation, I can share that professional development for employees at Bellwood Elementary School in the area of culturally diverse populations is deemed warranted and will be implemented,” Bouldin wrote.

Warner, who had hoped the offending teacher would be forced to apologize to her daughter, conceded last week that Bouldin’s letter is “the closest to an admission of guilt that I’m going to get.

“I’m satisfied there’s going to be pressure put on [the staff at] Bellwood in general. I don’t think I’m changing anyone’s hearts or minds. People don’t change unless they make a concerted effort. But hopefully, they’ll think twice before opening their mouths next time.”

Warner claims that on May 30, her daughter – then a fifth-grade student at Bellwood – informed her physical education teacher that she was fasting in observance of Ramadan, a month-long religious holiday during which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset.

According to Warner, the teacher allegedly denied her daughter’s request to be exempted from running along with the rest of her class, then ignored her when she complained of feeling nauseous and weak.

After deciding that Warner’s daughter wasn’t running fast enough, the teacher also allegedly forced the other students to continue running as punishment.

Warner said she had overlooked prior instances of inappropriate behavior by school employees toward her daughter, but no longer could stay silent after learning of the May 30 incident.

She contacted the Virginia office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which alerted the school system about Warner’s claim in a letter to Superintendent James Lane.

The organization’s legal director, Leslie Mehta, suggested the teacher’s actions violated two amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the First, which guarantees the free exercise of religion, and the 14th, which ensures equal protection of rights under the law.

School Board Attorney Wendell Roberts responded in writing on Lane’s behalf, noting the school system was “deeply concerned” about the allegation of religious discrimination and promising a complete review of the incident.

Warner, however, insisted her daughter’s physical education teacher didn’t just violate her right to religious freedom.

“[The teacher] put my child’s life in danger,” she said. “If you don’t have the common sense to say, ‘This child doesn’t feel well. She shouldn’t be running,’ you shouldn’t be a teacher.”

Tim Bullis, executive director of communications and community engagement for Chesterfield County Public Schools, confirmed via email Sunday that the school system cannot comment on specific results of an employee or student investigation.

“Maintaining safe, supportive and nurturing learning environments remains a priority for all Chesterfield County schools,” Bullis added. “Through the school division’s Equity Committee, we plan to continue to identify strategies to implement cultural competency initiatives that will better assist employees in serving a diverse community of learners. Leaders from across the county attended an equity training last week and these efforts will continue throughout the year.”

In the meantime, Warner has registered her daughter for the 2017-18 school year at the Al Madina School, an Islamic private school in Midlothian.

“She was adamant about it,” Warner said. “She said, ‘At least when I’m fasting, everyone else will be fasting too and they’ll understand.’”

Warner acknowledged it feels like she’s “surrendering” to employees at Bellwood who allegedly singled her daughter out for wearing a head scarf.

Many Muslim women wear headscarves, or hijabs, in public as a symbol of their faith and modesty.

“[My daughter] heard their message loud and clear: ‘You’re not welcome here. If you want to do your own thing, go to a Muslim school,” Warner said.

“I don’t want my kid growing up in a bubble with only people who believe the same things she does. I want her in a diverse environment, but ultimately I have to do what works for my child. Otherwise, God forbid, somebody might not understand that she doesn’t want to take a drink of water.” ¦

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