UPDATED 10:45 p.m.
If you caught Channel 8 (the Fox affiliate in Rochester) newscast tonight, you might think Batavia City Schools have just declared war on Christmas.
The on-air report explicitly accused the district of "canceling Christmas."
That's not quite accurate.
The report was based on a memo provided to district personnel last week reminding them of school policy on religious expression.
The district has had such a policy for more than 20 years, according to senior district Board Member Patrick Burk.
Superintendent Margaret Puzio said the memo was nothing out of the ordinary and is something that goes out to district staff about this time every year.
The memo is based on a policy last drafted in 2001. The policy is crafted to strike a balance between the No Child Left Behind Act (ensuring a nondiscrimination policy regarding prayer in schools), and previous legal cases based on the First Amendment.
The district's board adopted a policy prohibiting sectarian religious observance, but also ensured that individual teacher and student expressions of faith are protected.
“If I want to wear a shirt that says ‘Merry Christmas,’ I can do that," said Puzio following a district board meeting Monday night.
News 8 reported on its six o'clock broadcast:
A local school district is banning the phrase "Merry Christmas." Parents in Batavia are outraged about the new policy, which also prohibits Christmas and Hanukkah decoration in the classroom.
Parents were not notified about the new policy.
The story quotes one parent, Lucy Hudson, and claims several teachers were upset about the policy.
When The Batavian spoke to teachers Monday evening, the teachers waiting for the school board meeting to start said they were previously aware of the policy, but thought the recent memo was meant to reinforce the religiously neutral requirements.
Prior to Monday night's school board meeting, Puzio provided The Batavian with the 10-year-old policy, and said she would speak with The Batavian after the meeting (the original version of this story was posted prior to that interview).
The policy states any school activity should neither advance nor inhibit religion, and that students should be afforded the opportunity to learn about cultural and religious traditions, respecting the beliefs of all students.
Music at a school or public event, for example, should teach musical concepts, to convey historical and cultural content or to create aesthetic experience in a setting that emphasizes artistic expression and educational value, not to promote or celebrate a religious faith.
The policy requires that the district "vigorously publicize and disseminate" the policy.
An attached, undated memo, provides further clarification on teaching religion in schools.
"Religious symbols, such as Christmas trees, angels, menorahs, etc., should only be used as part of a unit of instruction on various world religions, not as decoration in the classroom or school. Remember, students have the right to wear religious symbols as an expression of their faith, but should not be obligated to do so."
In a section dealing with schoolwide or public events, the memo reads:
"Expressions related to specific religions, e.g., 'Merry Christmas,' should not be included in any spoken or written remarks."
Puzio explained that doesn't prevent a teacher in a private conversation with a student whom the teacher knows celebrates Christmas from saying, "Merry Christmas."
A teacher can also wear, for example, a cross on his or her lapel.
Personal expressions of faith are protected, but the district wants to be careful from appearing, as a government entity, to be endorsing any particular religion, Puzio explained.
“For me to stand up in front of the whole group and say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ is almost like the school district putting Christmas before everything else," Puzio said.
News 8's Deanna King, a current Town of Batavia resident who mentioned in the report that she attended Batavia schools, said she sat outside Puzio's office for nearly two hours trying to get a comment from the superintendent.
Asked about making a reporter wait outside of her office, Puzio said, "It was a heck of a day.
"We had several very, very serious student issues today," Puzio said. "I was dealing with those issues, and I had to prepare for a board meeting."
After a little conversation with a board member, Puzio added, "I just really didn’t have time today. It isn’t always a matter of saying, ‘I can see the press.’ I have to prioritize, especially as it relates to students and families who have serious issues. You just can’t say, ‘Gee, I’m going to set aside this mom who really needs to talk with me about a serious issue because I want to talk to Channel 8.”
By 10:45 p.m., Monday, News 8 had modified some portions of its online report, but was sticking to the essence of its story.
UPDATE 7:12 a.m., Tuesday: News 8 reporter Deanna King sent over the following statement:
I would like to clarify a few points to my story you may have missed. Ms. Puzio confirmed that her memo was sent to each school principal and was meant to be "talking points" during a faculty meeting. I can assure you she did in fact say it "wasn't meant for public viewing" during our phone conversation. As a journalist, I would never report something that was not true. I have been in this business for over 10 years. I'm sure you have seen her memo and recognized that it differs from the actual policy. I quoted directly from the memo. Also, although the policy is not new how the district is enforcing it seems to be. I recall being at my son's Christmas concert last year and hearing the director say "Merry Christmas!" Ms. Puzio told me teachers can say "Merry Christmas" if they "are sure everybody in the room celebrates." There is also a change in the room decoration policy. Over the past 5 years I have volunteered at several holiday parties in the district where teachers displayed decorations and it wasn't an issue.
I was notified of this controversy after several schools held meetings to address frustrations of staff members. I understand you often give your opinion on the site. I do not. I was attempting to give a fair report, but was denied by the superintendent after several requests. We offered to wait for her to finish her important business. I would not expect anyone to put an interview before the needs of a child. My photographer made a final attempt before the board meeting, but was told she wouldn't comment.
News 8 has high standards and I can assure you we confirm everything before we report it. Keep up the good work covering the news in this neck of the woods! Thank you.