School still life with copyspace on chalkboard

By Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service with BJC Staff Reports

A North Carolina high school student who sought to establish a school club for nonbelievers has decided not to move forward with her plans after what she and her family have described as harassment and threats.

Last October, Kalei Wilson, 15, and her brother, Ben, 17, asked to launch a chapter of Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of college and high school students, at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C.

Documents sent in February by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina on behalf of the students claim the brother and sister made multiple requests that were ignored and not dealt with in a timely manner by the school. They warned administrators that ignoring the students’ requests placed the school in violation of the Equal Access Act.

Several days later, Kalei Wilson announced she had been granted permission to start a club. Ben Wilson no longer attends Pisgah High School.

“To me it means change and improvement in the school,” she said at the time. “I hope to teach them more about equality and the separation between church and state.”

But within a week, her fundraising page announced that she would not be continuing with the group, saying she and her family had been threatened and harassed. They declined to comment for this story, citing concerns for their safety.

Pat Smathers, an attorney for the Haywood County Schools, which includes Pisgah High School, disputes Kalei and Ben Wilson’s claims in a letter written on behalf of school administrators and sent to the foundation and the ACLU-NC and obtained by Religion News Service. He says he undertook an investigation of the matter and has several “concerns,” including the alleged criminal past of Cash Wilson, Kalei and Ben Wilson’s father.

“It is my opinion your allegations on behalf of Kalei Wilson and Ben Wilson … are without merit and baseless,” Smathers’ letter states.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a statement that it was standing by its original assessment, calling the students’ complaints “credible” and describing the school’s investigation as “retaliatory.”

“We are troubled by the report, which contains many factual errors and focuses on matters that are irrelevant to forming a student club,” the statement reads. “Persons or organizations who may have been defamed and/or retaliated against by the school system might need to consider legal recourse.”

The ACLU of North Carolina also stands by its original assessment of Kalei and Ben Wilson’s claims.

From the March 2014 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.