Risk to student in school religion case merits concealing mom’s name

August 4, 2015

The mother of a Fort Wayne public school student may proceed without identifying herself in a federal lawsuit claiming the second-grader was ostracized and shamed by a teacher because he told a classmate who inquired about his faith that he didn’t believe in God. The mother said identifying herself would disclose her son’s name, subjecting him to further harm and public criticism.

“A.B. is a young child and this suit involves religion and public schools – a topic that ‘has a tendency to inflame unreasonably some individuals in most communities, including Fort Wayne,’” Magistrate Judge Susan Collins wrote in an order last week in A.B., a minor child by his mother and next friend, V.S. v. Michelle Meyer, in her individual capacity, 1/07113073027 1:15-cv-157.

“Accordingly, at this time, the Court finds that the risk to A.B.’s health and safety, if his mother is identified by name, outweighs the public’s interest in judicial openness and overcomes the presumption against anonymous litigation,” Collins wrote.

The complaint was filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division, over events that took place in February 2015 at Forest Park Elementary School. V.S. is a pseudonym for the mother, the suit says.

“During a discussion with classmates on the playground (A.B.) responded to a question by indicating that he did not go to church because he did not believe in God. This led to teacher Michelle Meyer “interrogating the child as to his beliefs and requiring the child to sit by himself during lunch and not talk to his classmates during lunch for three days … because he had offended them. … This violates the First Amendment,” the complaint says.

“The defendant’s actions caused great distress to A.B. and resulted in the child being ostracized by his peers past the three-day ‘banishment.’ No meaningful attempt has been made to remedy these injuries and the child seeks his damages.”

The suit claims A.B. told the inquiring student it was fine with him if the child believed in God, but “(t)he classmate said that A.B. had hurt her feelings by saying that he did not believe in God and started to cry.

“Meyer asked A.B. if he went to church, whether his family went to church, and whether his mother knew how he felt about God,” the complaint says. In a later meeting including A.B. and the inquiring classmate, another school employee told the classmate “she should not listen to A.B.’s bad ideas” which was “extremely upsetting to A.B. as it reinforced his feeling that he had done something very wrong.”

A.B.’s lunchroom banishment and instruction not to talk to his classmates “served to reinforce A.B.’s feeling that he had committed some transgression that justified his exclusion.”

The banishment ended after A.B.’s mother complained to the school during a three-way phone call with the assistant principal and Meyer, who the complaint alleges confirmed her involvement as the suit describes. Nevertheless, A.B. came home “on multiple occasions crying saying that he knows that everyone at school – teachers and students – hate him,” the suit alleges. “Even now A.B. remains anxious and fearful about school, which is completely contrary to how he felt before this incident.”
Meyer has not yet responded to the suit. A preliminary pretrial telephone conference is scheduled for Sept. 3.



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