Calm At Center Of Storm

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, October 21, 2012

His cellphone had never notified him he’d run out of minutes before, not until last week.

     That’s when Jason Case, the principal of West Lincoln Attendance Center, found himself the man at the middle of a controversy about school prayer and garnering statewide attention.

     It’s a controversy that began about 11 a.m. Wednesday when Case received a copy of a letter sent to the Lincoln County School District by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi describing numerous violations at the school of Constitutional provisions barring government promotion of religion.

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     Speaking about it Friday afternoon, Case laughed a little bit – a weary laugh.

     The school had been running very smoothly Wednesday morning. Things were calm. Case was focused.

     “Then it took a nosedive,” he said.

     The Mississippi ACLU’s Legal Director Bear Atwood said the letter was prompted by a complaint the organization received about the school approximately one month ago. A subsequent ACLU investigation revealed “pervasive” violations of settled law regarding school prayer, Atwood said.

     Case declined to discuss any specific violations of law that are said to have occurred and would only address the ACLU’s charges in general terms, though he admitted some guilt.

     “There are some false allegations and there are some that are true,” Case said.

     Case did later acknowledge prayer before football games, though he said that practice was discontinued last year.

     The ACLU letter singles Case out for censure and says he “actively fosters a school atmosphere that is overwhelmingly religious, from his interactions with teachers, staff and students to the physical environment in which students learn.”

     The ACLU letter says teachers offer prayers before meals and exams, crosses are placed on classroom walls and that prayers have been offered before official events like graduation ceremonies. The ACLU has demanded the district ensure school officials stop promoting religion at the school or face further legal action.

     Superintendent Terry Brister has said he and Case will investigate each charge and conform to the law, but Case offered a mixed response on how West Lincoln administrators will answer ACLU demands.

     “We’re going to do what’s right,” said Case, but wouldn’t elaborate on what he meant.

     However, when asked later whether there would be in changes at West Lincoln, he allowed that some changes may be needed.

     “We may have to do some adjusting in certain things, but no drastic changes,” Case said.

     Above all, though, Case pledged the good of the school as his primary concern.

     “I don’t want to do anything that would hurt the school here at West Lincoln,” he said. “It’s a special place.”

     Case has been principal at West Lincoln 12 years following about eight years as the boys basketball coach. He’s also the track coach.

     His father, Jack Case, is the president of the Lincoln County School District board of trustees, coached basketball 28 years at West Lincoln and is the namesake for West Lincoln’s Jack Case Gymnasium.

     Jason Case called the controversy of last week a distraction from the school’s mission.

     “We can’t lose our focus on what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re not here to put on some kind of exhibition for people. We come to school here every day focused on student achievement.”

     Evidently, that focus on student achievement has yielded success. Case highlighted that West Lincoln received the highest ranking the state can bestow on a school: Star status. West Lincoln was also named a National Blue Ribbon School.

     Since the ACLU’s letter, students, alumni and community members have rallied in support of prayer, the school and Case. There are about 750 students this year at the K-12 school, and Case seems well liked.

     Speaking Friday, Alan Roberts and his twin Austin Roberts, seniors at West Lincoln, dubbed Case an “A-plus principal.”

     He can be tough when a student gets in trouble, and they both know it; the two have been known to take each other’s place in classes. But he’s fair, they said, and cares about the students.

     John Montgomery graduated from West Lincoln in 2010 and still has deep affection for Case.

     “I always went to him when I had a problem and he gave me great advice,” Montgomery said. “He’s a great man and a great Christian.”

     Montgomery is concerned about the controversy now surrounding the school and wants to see the community unite. He’s written messages to the ACLU expressing his disagreement with their stances and has also taken his opinion to the marketplace: He’s selling T-shirts declaring “West Lincoln Loves Jesus.”

     There are clearly some like minds out there. He’s sold 200 preorders for the shirts.

     Montgomery was at the West Lincoln Grocery, located across from the school, Friday with pre-order forms.

     There’s also a poster on the wall outside the grocery bearing the words, “We Support Jason Case.” Many students and community members have signed the poster.

     “I’m humbled by the reaction of the people. I’ve had a lot of personal encouragement,” said Case, detailing the emails and letters he received and the text messages and phone calls that depleted his cellphone minutes.

     Case returns the community’s devotion.

     “I’m proud of the fact that we have a community that wants to do right,” he said.

     Seated in the lobby of front office Friday, Case pointed to the school’s marquee declaring the West Lincoln’s Star and Blue Ribbon rankings.

     “Your school is only as good as your community, and that sign out there says we have a good school, which means we have a good community,” Case said. “And I’m very proud to be a part of it.”