The Conway school board approved recommended procedures Tuesday to make sure schools’ visitation practices are "neutral" for both religious and nonreligious visitors.
The change means youth ministers and others will be allowed back on school campuses in the coming weeks, superintendent Greg Murry said.
The move came after Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm that seeks to defend religious liberty in the public arena, released a report Thursday saying the school district’s policy of allowing non-student visitors during lunchtime is "neutral" and does not advance or inhibit religion.
Murry temporary halted visits to students during lunchtime after Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for separation of church and state nationwide, sent a letter in October telling the school to stop allowing youth ministers access to children. In January, Murry met with ministers to say they could not visit schoolchildren during lunchtime while the school sorted out its legal standing.
Officials said the Foundation threatened a lawsuit, although an official with the Foundation said last week no litigation is planned.
Liberty suggested Tuesday amendments to strengthen the school’s current policy against any lawsuits. Jeff Matter, general counsel for Liberty, said the amendments are putting into writing what the schools already do. He said the policy, as is, is defendable.
"This is a good policy," Mateer said. "The policy they adopted tonight is a better policy. If they apply the policy, there will be no constitutional problems."
Some parents are concerned that Liberty’s research didn’t take into account ministers having unsupervised access to children — even roaming to different children — while they were visiting children at school lunches. Diane Robinson said her middle-school daughter came home with bookmarkers and said every Monday ministers talked to any student. She had not given permission for a minister to talk to her daughter. Robinson said she went to the school and witnessed ministers allowed to talk to children.
"It’s unfair to say that they don’t have unique access — they do," Robinson said. "I’m only allowed to eat with my child, but someone who is a stranger to me and my child is allowed to roam and talk to kids."
In November, Robinson sent the school a letter complaining about the ministers. Although the Foundation’s letter mentioned similar activities at Carl Stuart, Robinson’s daughter does not attend that school. She said she’s not concerned about ministers visiting children in their congregation with parental consent, but youth ministers were talking to other students.
"It becomes my business when it’s to my child they are speaking," Robinson said.
Robinson said she takes her child to Sunday school and goes to church. She hopes the school district’s new policy will make a difference, but she is concerned that Liberty’s report didn’t address what she saw at the school and said she wasn’t sure the new policy, basically the same as the old one, will be followed.
No parents spoke during Tuesday’s board meeting, but Liberty’s report was released late Thursday and parents calling Friday were told they missed the deadline to be on the agenda.
Mateer said no parents had come forward with concerns and that all Liberty could do is ask questions to grasp what was happening at the schools. He said in his experience, the district will apply the policy.
Changes include having visitors to the high school and junior high school maintain a list of each student with whom the visitor is affiliated. The principal of the school may exclude any visitor from engaging with students not on the visitor’s list. At elementary and middle schools, visitors may only have access to students whose parent or legal guardian has consented to the visit.
Principals can segregate visitors "if he or she deems" it important, Mateer said.
The school district is also seeking to take out bids for new screening equipment to do background checks on visitors, said K.K. Bradshaw, director of Administrative Services at the district.
Mateer said the school district is handling visitations and the policy appropriately. Other school districts are looking at Conway as a model, he said.