When 10-year old Sharon Presley thought someone had stopped her school from celebrating Christmas, she cried. Then she started working.
She first organized her fifth grade class at Lurel Ridge Elementary
Then she presented the county school administration with petitions, signed by 300 students, pleading to "leave Christmas and Hanukah in our school."
"The main thing that upset her was there would be no (Christmas) music in the school," said her mother, Vicki Presley. "Then she found out there would be no decorations. She came home in tears."
Her school principal insisted that he never said humbug to the Christmas holidays but the furor at his school persisted last week. "The fight, area educators say, is typical of many occuring throughout the Washington area over how public schools should celebrate religious holidays.
Nowhere, however, has the struggle seemed more intense than at Laurel Ridge, a school of 1,077 students set amid a middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes south of Fairfax City.
Students, parents and administrators at Laurel Ridge have been arguing for more than a week about the school's interpretation of a three-year old county regulation governing the observance of holidays in the schools.
That regulation (No. 1530), states schools should "be neutral with respect to religion and shall not engage in any activity that advocates or disparages religion." It is aimed at sparing non-Christian students from anguish during school holiday programs at Christmas and Easter.
Parents at Sharon's school in King's Park West have complained that Principal Ed Barker's strict interpretation of that regulation has resulted in an "absurd" situation: no holiday songs or decorations in the school, no seasonal parties, no Santa Claus or season's greetings. At a meeting with Barker this week, parents said their children had been warned by teachers they were not allowed to wish their students a "merry Christmas."
That's totally inaccurate," Barker declared at a meeting with 35 parents and two human relations specialists from the county school staff. "There have been some misunderstandings and I'm sorry for that. But the issue is certainly bigger than Laurel Ridge."
School superintendents in Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery County and the District have sent memorandums to their school's dealing with the delicate problem of keeping religion out of such traditional school observances as Christmas and Hanukah.
the memos have not stilled the controversies. "The complaints are from both sides," said Fairfax Human Relations Coordinator Dan Jackson at the Laurel Ridge meeting. Jackson estimated his office had received approximately 100 phone calls concerning Christmas observances in schools during the recent weeks.
Religion "is not a taboo subject" in county schools, Jackson said. On the other hand, displaying "religious symbols of devotion" such as a Nativity scene, "would be inappropriate," he said.
"What about snowflakes, Christmas trees and Santa Claus?" demanded parent Bob Wellman who brought the Dr. Seuss book "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" to the meeting to present to Principal Barker "What is religious about those things?"
The problem is while Christmas trees and Santa Claus have no theological significance," said Bob Tripp, another human relations employe. They are clearly religious symbols.
Principal Barker allowed that some Laurel Ridge teachers may have been "overzealous" interpretating of the school guidelines. But he insisted it was never his intention to ban seasonal songs or decorations from the school.
"Any art projects or songs that come from the students themselves are appropriate. But as staff members we should be neutral."
"My kids have been taught you do what your teachers say. There is no way that suddenly, for one month, they are going to come up with these things on their own. They need adult supervision," said Rosemarie Wellum, a parent.
Wellum was particularly upset with Barker because he refused to accept a Christmas wreath that she, as president of the Commonwealth Gardeners, presented to him last week.
The wreath was not a student production," said Barker. Nevertheless, he agreed to accept the wreath Wednesday night after learning the presentation had been a tradition since the school was built in 1970.
Barker and Pta president Larry Leibowitz suggested as a compromise that one area of the school be used to display a Christmas tree, a Jewish menorah and symbols from other religions. Barker also said that any art projects initiated by students, including a Nativity scene, would be appropriate for display in the school.
"I'm not on a crusade. My primary concern is sensitivity to a variety of kids," said Barker."Whether we promote or don't promote the guidelines, i'm going to get it, either way."
The compromise appeared to satisfy most at the meeting through parents Nancy Lusk moaned, "i don't see that they [students] are going to come home any less confused."
"When you're discussing politics or religion," said Baker, "There is never any happy ground."
As people left the meeting they were greeted by parent Tom Stubblebine, dressed in a Santa Claus suit and passing out candy canes.
"Santa's only objective is to make sure the traditions of Christmas, regardless of religion, are not lost in schools," said Stubblebine.
"Santa Claus is like elves," replied Jack Sheehan. "Once you stop believing in them they cease to exist."