Laughing Buddha in school not so funny to some
March 19, 2013
By Lillian O'Rorke
Holding up a box of tissue on a counter in the library at Pacific Cascade Middle School is a statue of Buddha. While the figure may be grinning, it’s causing some community members to frown.
“I’ve been in this school district a long time,” said Betty Dexter, a retired school bus driver who now works as a nanny.
She spoke to the Issaquah School Board during the public comments section of its March 13 meeting. Some children that she used to nanny, she explained, told her about the Buddha at Pacific Cascade. After speaking with the school’s principal, librarian and a district official, she brought her concerns to the school board.
“You know, when I was driving, we had Christmas trees and we caroled and everything else; and you throw that out and bring a Buddha in. That kind of got me going,” Dexter said. “We need to be aware of this, because this is a double standard and I don’t like it. And, I don’t think anybody does.”
Dexter’s daughter, Cheryl Lynch, said she also spoke with Pacific Cascade Principal Dana Bailey, and was told that the Buddha was there for educational purposes.
“But, the Buddha is sitting out, and if it was for educational purposes, then it should be sitting where the Bible is, in the Christianity section,” Lynch said to the board. “If he has to have a Buddha sitting there, then we should have Jesus Christ sitting there also. And if Jesus can’t sit next to the Buddha, then we need to get rid of it all.”
Jessica Russi, whose son attends one of Pacific Cascade’s feeder schools, also spoke at the meeting and said that she agrees with Lynch.
“I think it should be removed or joined by other religious artifacts,” Russi said.
The Buddha is not alone, Pacific Cascade’s librarian, Michael Fleming, said in a phone interview March 15. The figure is part of a larger eclectic collection, he said, of objects that he puts out in the library in the hope of making it a more fascinating place for students. Fleming scores thrift shops, he said, for fun items, such as a two-foot plastic dragon, an “E.T.” statue, a jointed monkey and a small wooden human model. Earlier this year, when Fleming was cleaning out his late grandfather’s garage, he found the Buddha.
“I thought it was interesting and the kids would dig it,” he said. “I want kids to be in the library and be interested. They come by and rub the Buddha’s stomach and think it’s interesting.”
As a Christian himself, Fleming explained that the statue does not offend him. However, he said he checked first with a few Buddhists he knew, because he did consider that a practicing Buddhist may take issue with the figure being used as a tissue holder.
“What you are talking about is the constitution,” said Sara Niegowski, executive director of communications for the school district. “Basically, what it says is you cannot promote or disparage any religion.”
A lot of people think that means that no religious objects are allowed in schools, she added, but that is not true.
The Issaquah School District’s policy regarding religion in schools allows for religious items as long as “such inclusion or study has a secular, educational purpose and the religious materials are presented objectively and in a nondevotional manner.”
Niegowski added that Fleming is planning to move the Buddha away from the front desk and add an informational card next to him. The librarian, she said, is also looking to balance Buddha out with artifacts from other cultures and religions.
“He is trying to make the library an engaging place, which is awesome,” Niegowski said. “He is also trying to be reflective of what is happening in the curriculum and the books that are in the library as well.”