Yarmouth High School students successfully lobby for 'minority holiday' policy

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YARMOUTH — The high school has adopted a practice, advanced by the student Civil Rights Team, that discourages teachers from making major assignments on “minority holidays,” including Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Fitr. 

Ben Pearl, a founder of the Civil Rights Team, said while students celebrating such religious holidays already have the option to be absent from school on those days, it doesn’t mean they are exempt from tests or class assignments that come due.

“A student that is fasting all day for Yom Kippur might have to go to school to take a test because they don’t want to make it up on their own time,” he said. “We (wanted) to propose a policy so that these students don’t really have to worry about that … they can take the day off and spend it with their family.”

Claire Scott, another founder of the team, said the group thought it would be a “fair step” because many school breaks are centered around Christian holidays.

“Everyone who’s Christian has the opportunity to practice their faith and go to services,” she said, “without the pressure of choosing between services and missing a graded school assignment.”

The team’s proposal was submitted it to the Student Senate, which unanimously approved it. It was then presented the idea to the school’s leadership team, composed of Principal Eric Klein and teacher representatives from each department, which also gave it the green light.

Pearl and Scott chose which holidays to include in their proposal by researching school districts in diverse areas, such as New York and Los Angeles, to find out which holidays those districts honor.

Scott said the team is also giving Yarmouth students who may practice other religions the opportunity to propose additional holidays to be recognized.

“We just proposed holidays for Islam and Judaism, and we have students in our schools who practice other religions,” she said.

The team is also working on a labeling initiative for the school’s cafeteria, which would mark certain foods as halal or kosher. Scott said Klein suggested the team take up that effort.

Klein said via email Nov. 13 the proposal from Pearl and Scott was endorsed by faculty and administrators, and is now “part of a formal practice” at the high school.

He noted the School Department’s official policy hasn’t changed, which would require a School Committee decision.

According to the Portland Press Herald, the Augusta Board of Education was scheduled to discuss a similar policy Nov. 14.

The Augusta policy would include religious holidays for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus on the school calendar so teachers and school administrators “can try to avoid scheduling events on those days.”

Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Donna Wolfstrom said via email Nov. 13 her district also has a policy regarding religious holidays, adopted in 2013.

It states no major examinations or or school-sponsored co-curricular activities should be conducted during a school day when students are “absent in observance of a holy day.”

Examples cited in the policy include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

According to Scott, Assistant Principal Amy Bongard is also planning to reach out to Superintendent Andrew Dolloff and administrators from Frank Harrison Middle School and Yarmouth Elementary School to see if they would be interested in implementing the holiday policy for younger students.

Pearl said while he and other members of the team want to “set the precedent” for the future so anyone can feel “welcome safe and supported” at YHS. 

The Civil Rights Team was founded following the presidential election in November, when Pearl said there was a “really divided school atmosphere” at YHS and a lot of students told him they were feeling “targeted.”

“Basically, Claire and I were talking one day and were like, there’s got to be something in our school that stands up to this and prevents this,” he said.

Last year, Paige Reinfelder, another member of the group, came up with the idea to hold the first-ever U.S. citizenship ceremony at Yarmouth High School. 

Scott said the team will sponsor another naturalization ceremony next spring, and is also hoping to have a speaker come in this school year to talk about civil rights.

And, while Pearl said it was the political climate of 2016 that “pushed” students to form the civil rights team, the group is not politically motivated.

“It just (has) the sole purpose of spreading civil rights awareness and advocating for everyone at the school regardless of their religion, their gender, orientation, economic status, etc.,” he said. “We think it’s really important.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 780-9123 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Yarmouth High School seniors Claire Scott, left, and Ben Pearl, are two founders of the school’s civil rights team, which proposed a prohibition on major school assignments on minority holidays.

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