SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A teacher in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah was placed on administrative leave after she forced a Catholic student to wash off the Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead.
William McLeod, 9, had just returned to his school near Salt Lake City after attending Catholic mass when his fourth-grade teacher called the ash marking “inappropriate” and gave him a hand wipe to clean it off in front of his classmates, grandmother Karen Fisher said.
At first William explained that he couldn’t remove it because it was important for the beginning of Easter but eventually obliged, Fisher said.
“He went to see the school’s psychologist crying,” said Fisher. “He was embarrassed.”
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The incident at Valley View Elementary in Bountiful, Utah, is being taken very seriously and an investigation into whether disciplinary action will be levied against William’s teacher has been opened, said Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams. In the meantime, she isn’t teaching, he said.
“The actions were unacceptable,” Williams said. “No student should ever be asked or required to remove an ash cross from his or her forehead.”
The teacher, Moana Patterson, was called into a meeting with the principal about the incident, Williams said. After that meeting, she called Fisher to apologize, he said.
Fisher, who lives with William, said Patterson gave a handwritten note and candy bar to William as an apology.
Patterson didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment about the incident.
Williams said he doesn’t know Patterson’s religious affiliation.
In Utah, Catholics are the minority. The 330,000 Catholics in the state account for about 10 percent of the population, according to Jean Hill at the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints account for about two-thirds of the state. The faith’s headquarters are in Salt Lake City.
Mormons celebrate Easter, but don’t observe Ash Wednesday, a Christian holy day of prayer and repentance that falls on the first day of Lent, six weeks before Easter. The use of ash is a sign of mortality and has a long history in Christian and Jewish worship.
“We understand that mistakes happen,” Hill said in a statement. “The diocese is also very grateful to the young student who used the situation to educate his teacher about a part of his faith and its importance to him.”
Fisher said Patterson asked if she could reapply the ashes herself. “I told her that’s not how it works,” Fisher said.
The school district’s director of educational equity, who happens to ordained as a Catholic deacon, came to the school to reapply the ashes, Williams said.
“Learning about one another is one way we build community across religious, political, racial, ethnic and other borders,” Hill said.
This version of the story clarifies that the Catholic deacon is a member of the school district.