Taunton officials dispute reports on Jesus sketch
Say boy not suspended, no evaluation ordered
By David Abel
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009
TAUNTON - City officials sharply disputed yesterday widely distributed reports that a local elementary school suspended a second-grader and required the boy to undergo a psychological evaluation for drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross.
The story, initially reported by the local newspaper, raised questions of religious bias days before Christmas and was broadcast by local television stations and other news media. Making the story more compelling, the boy’s father held court for much of the day at his girlfriend’s apartment, granting interviews to reporters from Providence to Boston, demanding that the school district compensate him for his family’s pain and suffering.
“It hurts me that they did this to my kid,’’ Chester Johnson, the boy’s father, said in an interview with the Globe. “They can’t mess with our religion. They owe us a small lump sum for this.’’
But school officials say that the account in yesterday’s Taunton Daily Gazette was rife with errors and that the father’s description of what happened is untrue.
“The report is totally inaccurate,’’ Julie Hackett, superintendent of the Taunton public schools, said in an interview in her office yesterday. “The inaccuracies in the original media story have resulted in a great deal of criticism and scrutiny of the system that is unwarranted.’’
Dino F. Ciliberti, editor of the Gazette, did not return calls yesterday.
Hackett said the student, age 9, was never suspended and that neither he nor other students at the Maxham Elementary School were asked by the teacher to sketch something that reminded them of Christmas or any religious holiday, as the Gazette and other media reported and the father suggested, although his story changed as he explained it.
She said it was unclear whether the boy, who put his name above a stick figure portrait of Christ on the cross, had drawn the picture in school, which his teacher discovered Dec. 2.
“Religion had nothing to do with this at all, 100 percent nothing to do with it,’’ Hackett said, adding that Taunton is known as “The Christmas City.’’
She said the drawing was seen as a potential cry for help when the student identified himself, rather than Jesus, on the cross, which prompted the teacher to alert the school’s principal and staff psychologist. As a result, the boy underwent a psychological evaluation.
She declined to comment on the results of the evaluation or whether the teacher had reason to believe that the student was crying out for help. The boy’s father showed reporters a report indicating his son was not a threat to himself or others and could return to school.
“In this case, as in any other case involving the well-being of a student, the administration acted in accordance with the School Department’s well-established protocol,’’ she said in a statement. “This protocol is centered upon the student’s care, well-being, and educational success. The protocol includes a review of the student’s records.’’
After reading the account in the local paper, Mayor Charles Crowley of Taunton asked Hackett to apologize to the boy’s parents. But in a telephone interview late yesterday, he said he stands by the superintendent.
“Dr. Hackett has far more of the facts than I do, and now I understand that the report was not accurate,’’ he said. “Based on her account, I stand behind my superintendent. She is in possession of the facts.’’
Officials from the state Department of Children and Families declined to comment on the case because there was no allegation of abuse.
Johnson said his son was suffering as a result of the commotion. He said his grades have declined in recent days and that he wanted him to be transferred to the Elizabeth Pole School, the most recently built in Taunton.
“He said he was uncomfortable,’’ he said. “I also think they should give him a fully paid scholarship to the school of his choice. We should be compensated for our pain and suffering.’’
Johnson acknowledged that his son identified himself on the cross, but he said it was only after he told school officials that his picture represented Jesus.
“He was scared, so he changed his story,’’ Johnson said.
School officials said the newspaper had an ax to grind, citing an opinion piece Ciliberti posted yesterday on the Gazette’s website, in which he called the school’s actions “a shame’’ and argued that the district “turned this into a major story.’’
Hackett said the Gazette published its story without giving the district time to investigate the allegations.
“The approach that is often taken is that an editorial or article in the local newspaper is completely inaccurate, but it gets published before anyone checks the facts,’’ she said.