School officials dispute claim that event was religious
From The Olympian – South Sound school district spokesmen said sending students to an event featuring the Dalai Lama on Monday provided a rare opportunity for them to see a Nobel Peace Prize winner and did not violate the concept of separation of church and state.
North Thurston spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said teachers were using the Buddhist leader’s Seeds of Compassion curriculum to discourage harassing behavior.
“It’s teaching kids about compassion and anti-bullying,” she said. “It’s a chance of a lifetime for these kids to learn about the role that compassion and empathy have not only on the playground but off the playground.”
Olympia district spokesman Peter Rex said the message was nonsectarian, and lessons about empathy are something taught at school.
“There was no religious message in any materials I saw,” Rex said. “I’d say for students to have a chance to meet with and hear a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is an incredible opportunity.”
Tumwater district spokeswoman Sue Haskin said the Youth Day portion of the conference was to include other leaders, including state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson.
Haskin said the Dalai Lama is not just the head of a religion.
“He is both a religious and international leader,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for our local students to hear from local and international leaders speaking about kindness and empathy and peace.”
She said parents and teachers were enthusiastic about the field trip.
“They felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said.
The Dalai Lama is the high priest of Tibetan Buddhism, and also a political figure. He is the leader of Tibet, but was exiled after a failed uprising against China, which has ruled Tibet since the 1950s.
Ron Allotta of Olympia wrote a letter to the editor to The Olympian, questioning why students should go.
“You can call it anything you want, but in the end it is simply the North Thurston School District and other state school districts taking our tax dollars and sending these kids on school time to a religious event,” he wrote.