Anoka-Hennepin Christian club accused of harassing non-religious students
On the heels of the ground-breaking Anoka-Hennepin settlement with six bullied students, a parent is complaining of a new harassment issue in the district.
Melissa Thompson, the mother of a Blaine High School student, says she's been complaining that members of an after-school Christian group called "Catalyst" have been pressuring her child to join for months. Thompson says she identifies as Christian, but her child does not.
At first, the school principal and district administrators seemed to agree with Thompson that the group was overstepping its boundaries and took steps to limit its activity. That was met by a backlash from Christian students and their parents.
Thompson -- who asked that City Pages withhold her child's name to avoid further harassment in school -- first contacted a teacher about the issue via email in September 2011. In the email, Thompson said her child had been asked repeatedly to join Catalyst by the same student and that the student said "he'd spend his last day trying to make them believe in Jesus by showing up at their homes, or contacting them through facebook or getting their cell phone numbers."
"This student's comments go far beyond a simple acknowledgment of his faith or an answer to a question (both would be within his religious rights)," Thompson wrote. "He needs to be approached and asked to stop."
The teacher wrote back saying that she'd met with the school's administration over the incident. Nevertheless, Thompson said the Catalyst student continued to ask her child to the meetings almost every Tuesday.
While Thompson is the only parent coming forward publicly to complain about the group, another student posted a YouTube "rant" about Catalyst. The student says he's been "personally harassed by this group," told "countless times" to attend the meetings, and that he's "going to burn in hell for my sins." He characterizes the group as a "Christian conversion organization."
Seven months after her initial complaint, Thompson sent another email to Blaine High School principal John Phelps, saying she was "absolutely shocked" by her own research into Catalyst.
According to Catalyst's website, the organization started in January last year as a Bible study group at Blaine, then expanded into five schools within Anoka-Hennepin. It identifies as "a campus movement led by high school students" and provides extensive training materials on how to start a Catalyst club in school. They produce some pretty high-quality videos, and give out doughnuts at their meetings before class.
Thompson became concerned after seeing that the website domain is actually owned by Daniel Buschow, the founder of an organization called Allies Ministry. According to Allies's website, its mission is to "build partnerships to reach and mentor the next generation by reaching every student, on every campus, in every community with the simple, yet life-changing message of knowing God in a personal way." Thompson provided the district with some of the literature from the Catalyst website and expressed concern that Buschow -- not students -- is actually leading the clubs, producing the literature, and paying for posters, food, and other activities. If this is true, the clubs would be in violation of the Equal Access Act, which permits religious clubs at school so long as they are "student-initiated" and that no one in the community "direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend meetings."
On April 4, Thompson received a letter back from the district.
"You provided us with significant and valuable information about Allies Ministries, Inc," the letter reads. "We see their potential connection to our group that should be student led and otherwise unaffiliated."
A letter went out to several principals from an associate superintendent in the district saying that if Catalyst is connected to a "church," any material crafted in coordination with Allies Ministries would be impermissible in school.
"Catalyst should not be organizing in any of our schools with affiliation to this church. Even using the name infers they are doing so," the letter reads. "A student led, non-affiliated Christian group is permitted."
Phelps also sent out an email saying Catalyst would no longer be meeting in Blaine and that "signs need to come down." The Catalyst website briefly stopped working.
That prompted an immediate response from student members, including this YouTube video from one of the members. In it, the student says allegations that the group is not student-led are lies:
Mary Olson, a spokesperson for the district, says they received many complaints from parents that the group had been shut down. She says that the district also heard from Buschow, insisting that he does not influence the groups. She emphasizes that Catalyst was never banned and that the emails indicating the contrary "may have been written prior to us getting more information." Phelps also dismissed the idea that the group was ever shut down in an email to Thompson, calling it "rumors."
Olson says that Allies Ministries told the district that "they're allowing them to use the web domain and providing some posters" and "not in any way operating the groups or telling the kids what to do."
Asked if providing resources like posters and food is kosher under the Equal Access Act, ACLU-MN Executive Director Chuck Samuelson says, "You're in a real gray area heading toward a 'no.'" Both he and Olson agree, however, that repeatedly asking a student to join a club would be considered harassment.
A couple of days after his original video, one of the Catalyst students posted a follow-up called "Catalyst is BACK UP."
At this week's Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting a half-dozen student leaders of Catalyst groups in Champlain Park, Andover, and Coon Rapids declared that the meetings are run entirely by students. Jean Diaz, the student from the YouTube videos, told administrators that he founded the group himself.
"Every single word was written by a student. Every single manual you read was written by a student," he said. "We are against harassment. We are against bullying . . . Our group is about love."
Buschow spoke after the students, saying he wanted to "clear his name." He says he's been working with youth for 34 years, and that he and his two children attended district schools.
"We provide connections and resources, but do not violate the Equal Access law in any way, shape, or form," he said. "I have never been to a Catalyst group in this school."
Catalysts clubs are now meeting as usual in the district.
Thompson, meanwhile, says that Catalyst members are now avoiding her child "like the plague," but that she is not backing off her insistence that the group be deactivated. She says she's concerned that religious ideology played a large role in the LGBT-bullying issue, and that the two problems go hand-in-hand.
"Just because my kid is OK, I'm not one of those parents that say, 'As long as me and mine are good, it's all good.' It is not all good," she says.
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