Minute of silence seems to have little meaning for Virginia students

By LIZ SEYMOUR

The Washington Post

With a gold cross around her neck, Camila Borrero begins each day at a Fairfax County, Va., high school silently reciting a few Catholic prayers she has boiled down to a minute. She said it helps her relax and lifts her confidence. Most of the time, said the 17-year-old, who moved to the United States just a few months ago, she prays for her family back in Ecuador.

Justin Green, 17, slips out of his classroom each morning and stands in the hall while the rest of Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., pauses for a minute of silence. He does this because he thinks the new state law mandating the silent minute encourages prayer in public schools and violates his First Amendment right to separation of church and state. At the beginning of the school year, he distributed buttons that said, "Heck nay, we won’t pray."

At Broad Run High School in Loudon County, Stefani Lubore, 16, spends those 60 seconds finishing homework, or just sitting. "Most of the time, I’m just waiting for it to be over," she said.

Nearly three months after Virginia’s public schools began observing a minute of silence every day, students have varying opinions on how worthwhile the state law is — and very different ways of observing the new ritual.

In each classroom, one or two students usually close their eyes, fold their fingers on their desk and pray in silence. A few high school students continue to protest the law, usually by walking out of class and returning as soon as the minute is up.

But most of the students interviewed said they have not been affected either way. They said they typically use the silent minute to do homework, whisper with friends or think about their weekend plans. Occasionally they reflect on something more serious — a sick relative, perhaps, or their college future.

Teachers and principals also are divided on whether the new routine is producing any benefits.

Some relish the quiet, saying it helps students focus on their studies and is a welcome reprieve for the grown-ups in the building. "As an adult, I certainly enjoy that moment," said Patricia McGinly, principal of Little River Elementary School in South Riding.

After she announces the minute of silence over the school loudspeaker, McGinly said, she pauses to think about her own day ahead: a classroom she wants to visit, a teacher she must remember to single out for praise. "Actually, I wish it was a couple more minutes," she said.

Other educators say they don’t see any effect on the atmosphere at school. "At first, I was really opposed to it because I thought it was just a way of bringing religion into public schools," said Bruce Snyder, a calculus teacher at Park View High School in Sterling. "Now, I’m just ambivalent because it’s not doing much of anything."

The law, which was passed by the state’s General Assembly last winter and took effect July 1, says that during the 60 seconds, "each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity."

When the bill was debated in the legislature, supporters said the practice would have a calming effect on students, while opponents argued that it would promote religion in the classroom.

Based on interviews with students, teachers and administrators at 12 northern Virginia schools, the law has not had the effect that either side predicted. Most students say they don’t think it has made them more reflective or attentive. But they also say they don’t feel any pressure to pray.

Wyatt Fenner, a sophomore at Yorktown, said he usually tries to catch a few winks during the minute of silence, unless it’s Tuesday. On Tuesdays, he stays awake for some last-minute prepping for his weekly vocabulary test.

"Sometimes on football game days I’ll say a prayer to God and ask him to send help and support to our team," said Nathan Staples, 17, a cornerback on the Potomac High School football team in Prince William County.

Staples, who is Baptist, said he also prays at home before dinner. "School is just another time to do so," he said.

Lis Bosma, a senior at Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, said she sometimes prays during the minute of silence but "could easily go without it."

"It doesn’t make a difference. I think it’s nice that they do it," she said, "but I wouldn’t be upset if they took it away."

The law is being challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on behalf of 10 students and their parents. Last month, a U.S. district judge upheld the law, and it will remain in effect for at least several more months while opponents pursue an appeal of that ruling. Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley has said he will defend the law before the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

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