Union County, TN schools hit with religion-related lawsuit

Action claims student was beaten, harassed for being different

 

By JENNIFER LAWSON, February 14, 2003

India Tracy came to expect being sent to the principal's office even though she was a well-behaved, straight-A student.

 

But the Union County youngster knew she'd probably be the only student with "no" written on the permission slip to attend a tent revival during school hours. When she declined to portray Mary in a Christmas play, she also was sent to the principal's office...

 

India and her parents, Greg and Sarajane Tracy, allege other students taunted her, beat her and ridiculed her religion for years. Fed up with the treatment, her parents filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf Thursday.

 

The lawsuit claims the Union County school system violated India's civil rights by promoting and endorsing religious activities, denied her right to freely exercise her religion and failed to protect her from harassment and physical and verbal abuse.

 

The first time the Tracys declined to allow their daughter to attend the two-hour, fundamental Christian services held over three days was in 1999, when she was in the fourth grade. The family had bought 11 acres in Union County because they thought the area was beautiful.

 

"The principal had called me to the office because mine was the only slip that said no," said India, now 14. "He asked me why I didn't want to go. He asked my religion. I told him I didn't want to talk about it and for him to call my parents."

 

Sarajane Tracy told the principal that she also did not want to discuss religion because she didn't think it belonged in school, she said. The family could be anything - Buddhist, Jewish or Islamic - and it shouldn't matter, she said. The family follows the ancient religious tradition of Paganism, which embraces kinship with nature, positive morality and acknowledges both the female and male side of Deity, according to the Pagan Federation.

 

India was the only student left in her class during the Area Wide Crusade in April 1999, so her classmates knew she hadn't gone. The crusade was begun in 1998 by a Union County Baptist pastor and is planned for this April as well.

 

While declining to comment on the lawsuit, school system Director James Pratt said the ministry rents school buses for transporting the students and some teachers act as chaperones but they must use a personal day to do so.

 

He referred other questions to Nashville attorney Charles Cagle. Cagle declined comment because he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.

The name-calling and rumor spreading began soon after the 1999 revival, India and her parents said.

 

Between 1999 and February 2002 when her parents removed her from Horace Maynard Middle School, the lawsuit alleges:

 

---That India was repeatedly called "Satan worshipper," "witch" and other derogatory names. She was accused of eating babies and of being a lesbian because she wasn't a Christian, the lawsuit said.

 

---That India was forced to attend regular Bible study classes during the school day, and urged to lead the school and her class in prayer.

 

---That derogatory names were written on her locker in permanent ink and the school refused to paint over the graffiti or move her locker.

--- That India was repeatedly attacked as she knelt in front of her bottom-row locker. Her head was bashed at least 10 times, cutting her lip, above her eyes and bloodying her nose.

 

--- That a teacher told India to "keep quiet because you'll get in trouble" after she wrote a paper about religious freedom.

 

--- That a bus driver regularly asked India in front of other students if she had gone to church yet and if she'd like to come to church.

 

The Tracys' Knoxville attorney, Margaret Held, said the family did not want to sue. They just wanted their daughter to attend a safe school without persecution.

 

"They tried being quiet about it and that didn't work," she said. "I would hope that the people in Union County who have been killing their goats and beating up their kid are a minority. If there's one thing that Christ taught, it was tolerance."

 

During her years at Sharps Chapel Elementary School and later at the middle school, India maintained top-notch grades. She also was one of the few girl players on the football team, played in the band and belonged to the Beta Club and Chess Club.

 

Her parents pulled her out of public school nearly a year ago, after a friend of hers called to say she'd been suggesting suicide. She was diagnosed with anxiety and has been home-schooled since then.

 

The suit seeks $300,000 in damages to pay India's tuition to a private school, legal fees and the cost of psychological counseling. The suit also seeks a court prohibition against "the school system's continued religious indoctrination of children."

 

"Maybe it will be a harsh enough lesson so the next child in Union County who's different can continue through school and graduate and feel safe," Sarajane Tracy said.

 

 

Jennifer Lawson can be reached at 865-342-6316 or lawson@knews.com

Copyright 2003, Knoxville News- Sentinel;Co

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