Girl's Claim of Religious
Persecution in School
is a 'Rush to Judgment' as Allegations Against
Teacher are Dropped
by Conrad Goeringer
December 3, 1999
It sounded outrageous -- a public school teacher requiring a young student to curse as part of a class assignment, and later ordering her to erase "WWJD?" ("What Would Jesus Do?") from a class blackboard, all in direct violation of religious rights. Some Christian groups and web sites promptly reported the story, especially when the Rutherford Institute -- a "religious liberty" advocacy organization -- denounced the incident, and mulled possible legal action. The Virginia-based organization announced that it was representing the student and her parents, and demanded that school officials give a written reprimand to both the offending teacher and the principal, and distribute copies to other school personnel.
The youngster's mother originally told local news media that the incident "boggles my mind," adding, "I'm sure a child would be disciplined any other time for cussing at school."
For some, it was simply more disturbing confirmation that religious beliefs and believers are "under attack" in schools, communities and other institutions. Accounts like this -- "Christian horror stories" -- are often reported by religious web sites, newsletters, and radio or television programs like the "700 Club." This incident reached some religious media, and the Rutherford Institute quickly "went public" with the story.
There is one problem though. The story turned out to be a hoax.
Should the Institute, and media, have checked out the claims?
It all began in Pleasant Hill, North Carolina, when sixth-grade student Hanna Darnell claimed that she had been sent to the principal's office and threatened with suspension after she refused to recite the word "damn" during a literacy exercise because of her religious beliefs. The students were reportedly reading aloud from a book, "Number the Stars," which discusses the Holocaust. Hanna told her parents that she refused on three occasions to recite the word, and was then sent by her teacher to see the principal. The youngster also claimed that a week after the cursing incident, she was scrawling "WWJD" on the blackboard with several representations of Christian crosses as part of a "feature one child" program, which encourages students to write about themselves. The teacher ordered her to erase her messages.
The alleged incident took place in October; and the Rutherford Institute quickly become involved. Steve Aden, litigation counsel for the Institute, told the Elkin Tribune newspaper the school had violated Darnell's rights.
"This girl is as good as a little girl gets," Aden declared. "She was obviously troubled over either swearing against her will or being suspended as rebellious."
"It seems there's a disrespect for Hanna's sincerely felt religious belief that's unwarranted by the separation of church and state," he added.
The Tribune noted: "Aden feels the Rutherford Institute has enough verification to take legal action if necessary."
Closer to home, though, there was some skepticism. Words of caution came from a local pastor, Nelson Granade, who defended the elementary school's principal, Vickie Hugger. Hugger had allegedly threatened the youngster with in-school suspension if she did not return to class and recite the offending passages which included the word "damn" from the book.
"I know Mrs. Hugger to be a loving Christian person," said Rev. Granade, "who is an active member of the First Baptist Church... Mrs. Hugger is the kind of light we need in our schools."
More questions arose several days later, when the Tribune reported that other students were not verifying the accusations made by Hanna Darnell. A school attorney said that the charges against the principal and teacher, Carolyn Settle, were unfounded. Parents were described as "amazed" by the scope of the accusations. At this point, even the Rutherford Institute was beginning to have second thoughts.
A legal coordinator for the organization, Ron Rissler, revealed that he had only spoken to Hanna and her mother. The Tribune noted that he "isn't concerned whether the accusation is true or not."
"Hanna has nothing to lose," said Rissler. "Some other parties may though. If we find it faceless we'll handle the situation appropriately."
By now, though, the story was being reported by groups like Christian World Ministries, which operates a daily news service. The alleged incident in North Carolina was carried in a dispatch saying that the sixth-grader "was punished for refusing to curse in class," and had been ordered to remove the "WWJD" remarks from the class black board.
The Tribune revealed another salient fact of the case: the girl's mother, who still believed her child's account, did not bother to check with school officials but instead contacted the Rutherford Institute.
"I know my child has the right to speak about Christ," Mrs. Darnell declared. "I like to have my ducks in a row when I go to talk about something like that." Rutherford's Ron Rissler said that the Darnells were advised to not contact school officials "because of the nature of the accusation."
Rutherford Institute issued a press release about the charges on November 16, claiming that the teacher and principal had violated Hanna Darnell's constitutional rights. At this point, the group demanded that the school issue a formal written apology and circulate it throughout the school system. Principal Hugger, though, vehemently denied that the incident occurred, and informed the Tribune, "I'm telling you straight out -- it never happened."
"I have never disciplined the child and she was never in my office," said Hugger. An assistant principal said that the Darnell youngster was never in his office either, and that students had been reading passages from the "Number the Stars" book since 1990. She noted that the book is on a list of approved resources issued by the State Department of Education.
On November 24, the story took another twist. The Tribune headlined, "Girl admits teacher didn't make her cuss," and reported that Hanna had informed her parents that she was never forced to read the offending words in school.
"Joyce Darnell and her husband had sat down with Hanna and told her the allegations weren't holding up...," noted Tribune reporter Mark Gray. "Hanna finally came out and said it was a lie, the mother said."
The sixth-grader stood by her claim that she had been forced to erase "WWJD" from the blackboard, but Ms. Darnell reported "she is not going to pursue the matter any further."
She says that did happen," Joyce Darnell said, referring to the alleged "WWJD" incident. "But it may come out later on that she lied about that also."
A Rutherford Institute press release dated November 24 declared that the group "expresses regret after fraud is disclosed."
"The Rutherford Institute was contacted on November 8, 1999 by the mother of a sixth grader at C. B. Eller Elementary School alleging that her daughter's civil liberties had been violated," said the press broadside. "After Rutherford Institute legal staff spoke directly with the sixth grader and her mother, they followed standard procedures in such cases by contacting school administrators, explaining the student's constitutional rights and tendering a formal demand that the violation be corrected. However, after extensive investigation by attorneys for the school and The Rutherford Institute, and continued questioning of the twleve-year-old, the student confessed to having lied..."
The release adds that the Rutherford Institute was "deceived and misled."
Questions remain, though, about the sequence of events, and whether Rutherford contacted officials to verify the youngster's accusations before taking the story public. In the November 19 issue of the Tribune, School District Superintendent Joe Johnson denied that the incident occurred, and added that the school had received a "complaint" from the Rutherford Institute "on Monday," November 15 -- less than a week after the alleged violations. In addition, the parents had not attempted to verify the accusations -- again, according to the Tribune, on the advice of the Rutherford Institute.
Principal Vicky Hugger told the paper that the Darnells and the Institute should have first spoken with all of the parties involved and not tried the case in the news media. She and teacher Carolyn Settle added that while they will not take steps against the student's family, they are mulling possible legal action against the Rutherford Institute.
School attorney Fred Johnson told the Tribune that he is drafting a letter to the religious rights group which will ask for a formal apology.
The incident raises concerns not only about claims of widespread "persecution" of Christian students in the nation's public school system, but also about what factors may be behind prompting a student to fabricate charges in this particular area. Are religious parents becoming hypersensitive, possibly encouraging their youngsters to seek out alleged violations of their religious rights while in school? Are advocacy groups, parents, and Christian organizations, which often publicize cases involving alleged violations of the rights of religious students, doing all they can -- and should do -- to verify such claims?
At least in one case, serious questions remain. Truth, and the reputations of students, teachers and others -- not "religious rights" -- may be the real victims.