PHOTO: Jake Bengelsdorf, a senior at Franklin High School, voices his concerns with the Williamson County School Board / Photo by Alexander Willis
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
Members of the Jewish community are rallying together in the hope of changing absentee policies in Williamson County Schools (WCS), which they say punish those of certain faiths more so than others.
The issue pertains to the WCS semester and final exams policy, which allows students with an A grade average or above to be exempt from both the semester and final exams in any particular class, granted they don’t exceed six absences during a semester.
The only absence that does not count against students, regarding exam exemptions, are pre-approved college visitation days. According to the policy, absences may also be excused by the superintendent “due to a hardship or other extraordinary circumstances.”
Since many Jewish holidays aren’t granted the same courtesy as holidays like Christmas and Good Friday in terms of school scheduling, many Jewish students are having to choose between faith and school, according to West End Synagogue Rabbi Joshua Kullock.
“After six [absences] you may appeal because of whatever extraordinary circumstances made you go over those six,” Kullock said. “The question here, is whether being Jewish, or proudly sustaining your own particular faith, should be considered extenuating circumstances.”
Kullock explained that a practicing Jewish student is likely to have already missed three days this semester due religious holidays, cutting their excused absences in half. Yom Kippur, a 25-hour prayer and fasting day of atonement that is considered to be the holiest day of the year in Judaism, happened to fall on a Tuesday and Wednesday this year.
Safety and health concerns are also of importance. Kullock shared that one Jewish student went to school feeling ill, not wanting another absence, and later passed out.
That student, Jake Bengelsdorf, spoke before the WCS board on September 17, explaining what he believed to be unjust about the absentee policy.
Bengelsdorf explained that after celebrating Rosh Hashana, a religious two-day celebration, he had come down with a fever. Knowing he would need to take another absence for Yom Kippur, he decided to attend school the next day regardless of his condition.
“I went to school in layers, trembling in cold sweats, led outside to take a senior picture, eventually losing consciousness in the middle of the football field, and then I had to be carried off and driven while completely incapacitated to the nurse’s office,” Bengelsdorf said. “What if I passed out walking alone in the hallway? What if this happened on the drive home from school that day? What if this happened to every other Jewish and Muslim kid in Williamson County? Unfortunately, that is, and will continue to be a possibility for every second that this policy continues to stay in effect.”
Bengelsdorf went on to tell the board that he believes Williamson County is fostering a “toxic” environment for religious diversity.
Kullock also brought up the fact that this problem isn’t exclusive to those who practice Judaism, but to all of those who practice religious holidays that are not accommodated by their schools.
“Developing and making room for the proud practice of particular religious faiths – the Jewish faith, or the Muslim faith, or the Christian faith – I think it’s a step in what we would love to see,” Kullock said. “Having to make our children choose between going to school or coming to Synagogue doesn’t seem to be fair.”
In the case of Maryam Chaudhary, a 15-year old Muslim student at Collierville High School in Tennessee, her constant dilemma of having to choose between school and prayer eventually compelled her to bring her concerns to the school board in October of 2017.
As recent as August of this year, the school district changed its policies on semester and final exams, removing them entirely. Chief of staff for Collierville Schools, Jeff Jones, said Chaudhary’s actions were a “contributing factor” in making the exam policy changes.
Superintendent Mike Looney said the district has been in talks of altering WCS policies on exam exceptions as well.
“We have, as an organization, been debating the value of exam exemptions all together, because the truth of it is when you get to the post-high school level, colleges don’t, as a practice, give you exam exemptions,” Looney said. “This issue notwithstanding, we were already reviewing the policy and having discussions about whether or not we want to eliminate exam exemptions. It will certainly be a topic of conversation amongst the administrators and our school board members moving forward.”
Kullock said he and his congregation plan to continue to remind Williamson County commissioners of this ongoing issue, in the hopes of one day enacting a change.
“In many regards I think that this is an ongoing conversation that parents are having now, but parents were having 20 years ago as well… every now and then it comes back,” Kullock said. “I hope that the school will allow and sustain, support, and even celebrate the fact that we have bright, young students willing to strengthen their faith and their belonging to a religious community.”