Dec. 15, 2009 -- A second-grade teacher at Maxham Elementary School in Taunton, Mass., asked her class to draw a Christmas scene. 'Tis the season, after all. So an eight-year-old boy in the class decided to draw a stick figure on a cross, complete with Xs for eyes, to depict a crucified Jesus.
"The teacher brought him down to the principal's office and they asked him why does he have Xs on his eyes, and the student said his eyes are closed because he is dead," said Toni Saunders, an educational consultant who was brought in to counsel the boy's family. The boy's father, Chester Johnson, asked that the boy's name be kept private to the extent possible.
According to Saunders, school officials began to quiz the boy about the meaning of the Xs on the eyes and about his understanding of death. At one point the boy said he was actually showing himself on a cross. They called his father.
"As soon as he said that that was him on this cross, red flag," said the elder Johnson. She ran with it. Touchdown. I'm going to have him evaluated. There's something wrong with this minority kid. We got to get in his mind," Johnson, who is black, said in a television interview.
"They said you cannot bring him back to school until he has a psychiatric evaluation…this is a very religious family and they are understandably upset because they don't think their son did anything wrong," said Saunders.
The father tried to explain that the family had just returned from a visit to the National Shrine of our Lady of La Salette in nearby Attleboro, Mass., to view the annual Christmas display. It includes 300,000 lights, nativity scenes, biblical tableaus and creches and promotes the telling of Jesus' story as central to Christmas.
But school officials wouldn't budge. The boy was sent home on Dec. 2 and only returned to school after completing -- and passing -- a two-day psychiatric evaluation.
The town's mayor has now stepped into the fray, urging the school to apologize to the family and pay for the evaluation.
Cathy Malchiodi, an art therapist who regularly analyzes children's drawings as part of her practice, said, "At that age they do a lot of idiosyncratic stuff and it's all based on what they are exposed to."
Malchiodi said that in her opinion sending the child for a psychological evaluation based on this drawing was "a bit of a leap."
School: 'Concerns About a Child's Safety'
School officials refused to comment on the case, although Superintendent Julie Hackett told the Taunton Gazette, "Generally speaking we have safety protocols in place…if a situation warrants it, we ask for outside safety evaluations if we have particular concerns about a child's safety."
But John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a self-described conservative legal organization, calls that argument ludicrous. "It's obviously not violent…the fact that he put Xs over the eyes of Jesus Christ is a historical fact. He died on the cross. And what is the fear of a second grader? He obviously can't do anything violent," said Whitehead. He said he believes this case is less about violence and more about an anti-religious bias at school.
Child Draws the Crucifixion: Psychological Evaluation Needed?
Whitehead ticked off a list of what he describes as "similar incidents" across the country -- the students who weren't able to hand out Christmas cards with Christian themes. Or the child who was told he couldn't write about Jesus as a historical figure in history class. Or the students in Washington who wanted to sing Ave Maria, until school administrators canceled the performance.
"I think the family in this situation has a good legal case against the school…to take a kid out of school and undergo all those tests. His record needs to be cleaned up. He did nothing wrong," said Whitehead. "I think the school officials need an educational evaluation."
So far the family isn't talking legal action, said Saunders, although they do want to make some changes. "The family wants the son out of the school, they're uncomfortable with what happened and they believe their son has been traumatized by this," said Saunders.