Nov 7, 2023

‘I don’t kneel’: Student sues Chicago schools over candlelit rituals during class

Black Chroicle News Service- November 5, 2023

Mariyah Green was a junior when she transferred during the 2018-19 school year from a charter school to Bogan High School, where she played volleyball and basketball. Green had no idea when she transferred to Chicago Public Schools that she would end up suing the school, alleging violations against her First Amendment rights.

She told Chalkboard that students were made to participate in the district’s Quiet Time program, where instructors encouraged students to participate in transcendental meditation, including initiation rites conducted in a darkened classroom. She was recently awarded $75,000 for damages and legal fees in a judgement.

Students were told not to tell their parents about their “mantra” words, according to Green.

Green said students were expected to meditate for 15 minutes during two class periods every school day as part of the Quiet Time program during class in the place of instructional time, which targeted high-needs schools.

A 2016 Smithsonian Magazine article shows how the David Lynch Foundation wanted to spread transcendental meditation to urban schools in Chicago and New York and study the results on 6,800 “subjects.”

“The Quiet Time program serves urban schools that have high rates of youth behavior challenges, teacher turnover, and academic achievement gaps,” reads a Quiet Time brochure about the program’s implementation at the San Franciso Unified School District.

“By introducing meditation to the entire school community – students, teachers, and principals alike – this innovative program has effectively restored a positive culture of academics and well-being in high-need school communities,” the brochure reads.

But in practice, the Quiet Time program included pushing religion on students violating the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, according to Green and her attorneys.

Mariyah said when she started at Bogan, a transcendental meditation instructor would pull 3-5 students at a time out of class and take them to a darkened classroom to purportedly teach them how to meditate “the proper way” over the course of several days.

“As I go into the classroom, the setting was very uncomfortable for me,” Green told Chalkboard News in an interview. “The lights were off in the classroom. There was a picture of a man, and at the moment, I didn’t know from what religion it was, i just knew it wasn’t my religion, and I’m a Christian.”

Green said there were candles and chairs in the room and a woman with a headdress gave students a mantra that they were not supposed to repeat to parents, coaches or peers.

“That gave me a red flag,” Green said. “I’m not comfortable not being able to share this with my parents. They never gave me a consent to give to my parents. I was a minor at the time. I never signed anything to give them permission to put this religion on me.”

Green said that as students were meditating in the darkened classroom, the instructor told them they could kneel down to the picture of the man, that was set up like an altar.

“Oh no, I’m not kneeling down. That’s against my religion,” Green said. “I don’t kneel down for idols and pictures and things of that sort.”

Green said she told the instructor that her knee was injured from a sport.

After the school day, Green told her mom about what had happened and they researched what has happening during the ritual. Green said over the next two days, she had to hide during the last 15 minutes of class.

Green said whether she meditated in class was linked to a participation grade. If her grades were too low, she could not participate in sports. She filed a lawsuit in February this year alleging her rights were violated.

Specifically, the meditation required students to attend “Puja” initiation ceremonies, according to the lawsuit. Instructors did not share the meaning of Sanskrit words used during the ceremony, which included descriptions of bowing to a guru.

The lawsuit claimed students “were coerced to engage in Hindu religious practices and rituals in violation of their rights under both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.”

Green was not the only student to file suit against CPS over allegations it violated their religious freedom, according to her lawyers at Mauck & Baker. Several others have brought suits against the school, including a Christian and Muslim student.

The district ended the program in 2020 and maintains that it hasn’t done anything wrong.

“Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is committed to the safety and well-being of our students, and works with external partners to implement various programs and strategies to promote student mental health and ensure social and emotional well-being,” a spokesperson said.

“One of the programs CPS used was Quiet Time – a meditation-based social-emotional learning tool designed by the David Lynch Foundation, which develops programs to serve populations dealing with violence and trauma,” the spokesperson said.

Because the district entered into judgment, the case did not go before a jury. The option is similar to a settlement.

“The District has always denied, and continues to deny, any liability as a result of Quiet Time, and there has not been any finding of liability in this case by a judge or a jury,” the spokesperson added.

John Mauck, a partner at Mauck & Baker, characterized it differently. He said the district entering judgment is “effectively admitting they did wrong” regarding the claims in the complaint.

“They’re not contesting the truth of those,” Mauck said. “But they’re admitting the ultimate liability and Mariyah chose to accept that.”

“We feel this is an opportunity to let others know what’s going on with this unconstitutional establishment of religion, basically,” Mauck said.

Green said she is happy that her case against CPS is closed and feels that justice has been served. She said that it’s important to create awareness about what happened so other schools will not do something similar.

“I feel good because it’s bringing attention to what they tried to force on me and make me do as a minor in school,” Green said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

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