In a sworn statement filed today in U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, Huff denied responsibility for the May 7, 2015, field trip taken by North Middle School eighth graders to Victory Ministries and Sports Complex, throwing two of his former employees under the bus.
"Those with authority to review, approve, or reject (field trips) would be, from top to bottom, (Executive Director of Secondary Instruction) Jason Cravens and (North Middle School Principal) Brandon Eggleston."
The court documents, however, indicate that Huff involved himself in the situation concerning the North Middle School trip, dashing off an e-mail to a lawyer threatening legal action making light of the situation.
Huff's statement that the buck stopped with Cravens came in his answers to interrogatories from the lawyer for Jane Doe, the North Middle School parent who filed the lawsuit on behalf of her child, who was an eighth grader at North at the time of the field trip.
The interrogatories were included among dozens of exhibits filed by Jane Doe to support a motion for summary judgment.
The documents detail the steps taken by school officials after they were alerted two days before the trip that it could very well cause such a legal action.
Huff, Cravens, and Eggleston were all aware of e-mails from three sources noting that in order for students to attend the field trip, they had to sign a consent form provided by Victory, which allowed Victory employees to talk about religion to the students:
We (I) understand that the officials, agents, other participants and employees of Victory Ministries and Sports Complex may be inviting me or (my) our students to Bible studies and local churches of the Christian faith. While at any Victory Ministries and Sports Complex location or event(s) our student(s) has permission to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.
Hemant Mehta, a reporter for an online magazine, friendlyhumanist.com, brought up the permission slip, as well sa the trip, in a May 5, 2015 e-mail to Eggleston, a copy of which was sent to Huff.
"Obviously, this is a problem. I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect taking kids to a Christian ministry when they could be subject to proselytizing from staffers (while their parents aren't around) is illegal.
"I'm curious why the administration felt this would be okay."
Huff contacted Cravens, forwarding Mehta's e-mail adding one sentence. "Jason, this one is all yours, CJ."
After receiving the e-mail, Cravens contacted Eggleston, asking for a scanned copy of the permission slip to help him respond to Mehta. In his response to Cravens, Eggleston explained the eighth grade outing.
I just sent you a scan of the permission slip and release form. It is a MAP celebration for students that attended all days of the MAP testing, exhibited appropriate behavior and work ethic during the testing time.
The student body had three choices of which to vote from, Mini-golf, Bowling, and Victory. Overwhelmingly, the student body chose Victory. The form sent home to parents was accompanied with a permission slip. It is not mandatory for students to go and if a parent objects to their child going, they do not have to go. We will be there from 9-12 and students are supervised by teachers and administrators.
In the meantime, Huff was contacted by David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Organization, who also noted the permission slips and the nature of the Victory Ministries and Sports Complex mission. In Huff's response, he acknowledged that the wording of the permission slip was "unfortunate" and that the district would not make the same mistake again. He noted that the students had voted to go to Victory. Though there was still time to change the plans and alternative sites for an outing were available, Huff made no mention of even giving a thought to changing the field trip, which caught Niose off guard.
Thank you for your email regarding your concerns over the field trip to Victory Gym. The trip is a celebration for the hard work the students did this year. The students voted for this location. The activities and approaches are completely secular in nature. The permission slip was the standard waiver of Victory Gym. We have not had any parents contact us about concerns, but if they do, we will assure them the secular nature of the trip. Your email brings a good point for us to review the waivers of locations better so our communication can be clearer. I believe removing the language on the waiver would have created more clarity and removed the confusion for the parents regarding the nature of the trip. Definitely something for us to be diligent towards in the future. Thank you, again. CJ
I must say your response is quite surprising. First, it matters not that the children voted to go to this destination. The Establishment Clause is not subject to majority votes. Second, although you choose to call the destination "Victory Gym," the facility is in fact "Victory Ministries and Sports Complex."
As for the trip being ostensibly "secular," that claim is quickly impeachable simply by looking at the web site. See their "About" page (a screen shot is attached to this email). They list three purposes (all religious) and eight goals (seven of which are expressly religious). They even utilize a cross in their sign. Any pretext that this is a "secular" trip is laughable - even if aggressive proselytizing doesn't occur, clearly efforts to influence the children will abound. I'm trying to be as straightforward with you as possible, so that we can avoid needless litigation. How do you think non-Christian parents would feel about their child being brought to this destination by their tax-supported public school? Our organization has litigated cases in Missouri before (we settled a lawsuit against the Fayette school district just last year), and we will not hesitate to do so again. You've been forewarned.
In addition to Mehta and Niose, Jane Doe had contacted former Missouri Southern State University professor Scott Cragin, who e-mailed Eggleston May 6, the day before the field trip, sending a copy to Joplin Globe Editor Carol Stark.
I received a letter from a North Middle School parent who is so concerned for his own child that he did not want to be identified. If you have not already heard from the AHA or FFRF, (Freedom From Religion Foundation) you should know that what you have planned for tomorrow is very likely against the law. I wondered if you could provide an explanation for me, the concerned parent, the SSA, and Carol Stark at the Joplin Globe why you are sending students to this event that is clearly sponsored by a religious group. "Ministry" is part of their name, so this can come as no surprise to you.
Cragin was particularly disturbed by the section of the permission slip that allowed Victory employees to talk about religion to the students:
Is any more evidence even necessary?I am also a member of Joplin Freethinkers. I am encouraging all organizations that respect the separation of church and state to make their voices heard on this issue. I'm sure the scheduling of the event on the "National Day of Prayer" was a coincidence, too. Please explain to us why this is not an offensive, illegal activity.Thank you for your time.
Eggleston forwarded the message to Cravens, who contacted the district's communications director, Kelli Price, including the following message:
FYI--another one to Brandon. I told he (sic) to use the language I used in the response to the blogger. These make me tempted to not even respond when they take this type of tone. What do you think?
Price's thoughts went immediately to protecting Superintendent C. J. Huff's pride and joy, Bright Futures:
It's best to respond.This leads to activist territory where we could be questioned on everything including the faith-based groups we have in our schools through programs like Bright Futures. Your original response was fine. How frustrating that the parent did not pick up the phone and call for an explanation. Did Brandon reach out?
While dealing with the e-mails, Eggleston was also working with officials at Victory to make sure there would be no problems. Court documents indicate he called to make sure there would be no problems with the students being approached with any type of religious message. The people at Victory assured him there would be no problems.
In a deposition, Victory CEO Jack Frost said he provided Eggleston with a way out, saying he had no problem if the school officials wanted to simply mark out the section of the permission slip that was creating the problem.
Though no explanation was offered (it was likely many of the permission slips had already been returned) Eggleston and R-8 officials did not take Frost up on his offer.
After talking to Victory officials, Eggleston responded to Cragin's e-mail:
Thank you for your email regarding our trip. Our students worked extremely hard on the state assessment and this trip is a product of their time, effort, and energy. The student body voted on the location of the trip and Victory confirmed with me that there will not be any bible studies, worship services, or other activities pertaining to the Christian faith. I have not had any direct phone calls from parents of North Middle School students concerning this trip, and I am confident that our students will not be subjected to faith based activities. I was assured by Victory that this would be the case, otherwise our students would not be taking the trip. In the future if we use this venue for trips we will ask for the wording on Article 6 of their standard release form be changed or omitted for public schools.
The documents that were filed today indicate that the lawsuit's scope has broadened beyond the North Middle School field trip and includes other activities that the district has held at Victory, including those held by the Life Choices group the district contracts with to teach sex education and high school groups Fusion and its predecessor Link Crew.