Police chaplaincy program under fire, critics say FUSD is paying to insert religion into school

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- For a few years now, the story of Fresno police chaplains reading to Fresno Unified first graders showed an arc on the rise.

"I've seen a real change in the children how they are just really inspired," said Dorothy Gray, a chaplain from December 2016.

The Resilience in Student Education program was designed by a former principal who now works as a police chaplain.

Once a week, chaplains go into classrooms and read to kids, then go through exercises designed to direct them to positive thoughts, empathy, and impulse control.

But this story has reached its conflict and a potential turning point.

A complaint prompted a letter to FUSD superintendent Bob Nelson, demanding the district immediately stop allowing chaplains access to its students.

A national organization says the religious arm of the Fresno Police Department has no place in public schools.

"Although we have chaplains teaching it, it's a secular curriculum," said Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer. "It's no different than a teacher of faith teaching in the school system."

Dyer says the school district pays the police chaplains $1,000 a year per school to cover the costs of background checks on the chaplains, training, and materials.

The chaplains went into 45 schools last year. Dyer says the only negative feedback they received was that they didn't go to more schools more often.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation says mentoring kids is a good idea, but forcing religious leaders on kids is unconstitutional.

"Maybe the school district could take steps to alleviate the rest of the concerns, including opening the program up to anyone - not just Christian leaders," said representative, Chris Line.

The foundation made a similar complaint to Turlock Unified in 2016 and convinced the district to rebrand its school chaplains as "character coaches" with no religious affiliation.

Corin Hoggard: "Is it something where you could avoid the appearance of this potential issue by just assigning school resource officers to do this instead of chaplains?"

"Well, we don't have any school resource officers, or student resource officers, in any of our elementary schools," Dyer said.

A Fresno Unified spokesperson told Action News, "the lessons being taught through the chaplaincy program are completely secular and reflect approved curriculum."

But if they don't tweak the program, the foundation could bring a lawsuit.
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