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BENTONVILLE -- Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith last week cited public safety as one reason the Bentonville School District should allow a Christian program for kids to meet after school in district buildings.

Smith was one of several from the community who spoke at the June 18 School Board meeting on behalf of the Good News Club, which has met after school in some Bentonville elementary schools for more than 13 years.

District officials decided earlier this year the program may continue to meet at the schools only if organizers move meeting times from immediately after the regular school day to 6 p.m. or later.

Good News Club organizers believe they'll draw far fewer children if they have to move to evening meetings.

Their pleas, however, had little effect. Several board members said later that while they believe the program is beneficial, they weren't willing to overturn the administration's decision.

Debbie Jones, the district's superintendent, said no outside organization is allowed to meet at the elementary schools until 6 p.m., the time at which Adventure Club, the district's before- and after-school program, ends each day.

"Our main interest is the security of the district and the security of the students," Jones said Monday.

Smith, who has a first-grader enrolled in the district, also touched on safety during time allotted for public comment at the board meeting.

"What we see when we deal with kids in trouble is, a lot of them can't plug into the right kind of a group," Smith said. "Whether that's a Good News Club or anything else, I think it's important for our public safety for kids to be able to plug into a group like that."

Smith also posed a legal argument, saying past court cases have made clear the district can't "suffer any legal jeopardy" by allowing the Good News Club to meet immediately after school.

"That is not the case if you put them at 6 p.m. like they are, because I think you would be subject to a challenge saying that it's essentially a veiled attempt to kill that group," he said.

Good News Club is a ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship. Kids in the program "meet new friends, play games, sing songs and learn the good news about Jesus Christ," according to a video on the Child Evangelism Fellowship website. It meets one hour per week for six weeks.

Neither a teacher nor a volunteer non-employee may lead a religious group composed of elementary students during school hours because that could be viewed as constituting school-endorsed religion, according to Marshall Ney, the district's attorney.

Officials decided Adventure Club should be considered an extension of the school day. Adventure Club is available to students in kindergarten through sixth grade at each of the district's elementary and middle schools. It runs 6-7:30 a.m. and 2:30-6 p.m. each school day.

Amy Dyson, who coordinates the program in Bentonville, said Good News Club is in 4,610 schools across the country and in 27 school districts in Arkansas. Those participants are permitted to meet directly after school, she said.

Dyson compared the program to Girls on the Run, another national program, which meets immediately after school in Bentonville. The Good News Club must be treated equally, Dyson said.

Richard Mast of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian organization, outlined the same argument in a six-page letter he sent to Ney in April.

The difference between the two groups is Girls on the Run is school-sponsored, according to Leslee Wright, district director of communications. It is an extracurricular organization tied to physical education, counseling and health curricula and is organized and run by a district staff member, she said.

Six other people from the audience at Monday's meeting spoke in favor of returning Good News Club to an afternoon meeting time.

Beth Amidei said she was a parent and a Good News Club volunteer. Her family has very much enjoyed the program. Moving the meeting time to 6 p.m. would "put an undue burden on parents," she said.

Toward the end of the board meeting, several members thanked the Good News Club supporters for coming out but seemed willing to stick by the administration's decision.

Board member Brent Leas said he's a big supporter of the program but added he felt comfortable the district's decision "is in the best interest of all students concerned." He further encouraged organizers to find another way to promote the program.

Board member Joe Quinn promised to show up with doughnuts if organizers agreed to go ahead with 6 p.m. meetings.

Travis Riggs, board president, said he'd received email about the issue from many friends who are Christians.

"I hope you realize we do recognize the good things the Good News Club does. But again, we take an oath to protect the district as a whole," Riggs said.

Rebecca Powers was the only board member who expressed a desire to see the board decide the issue. She said she doesn't believe it's an administrative issue.

Metro on 06/25/2018

Print Headline: School patrons hail Christian program; But board lets stand new meeting time

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