School head vows to ban proselytizers

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Santa Rosa's schools chief says he has enacted new guidelines to prevent religious groups from proselytizing after two organizations used school assemblies to draw students to an after-school evangelical Christian rally.

"If folks tell us the truth, it can't happen again," said Lew Alsobrook, Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent.

The promise came amid dozens of complaints after last week's assemblies and rally sponsored by Santa Rosa's Christian Life Church and the Sacramento-based On Fire Youth Events.

The mandatory assemblies, held during the day at six junior high and high schools in Sonoma County, focused on building self-esteem and contained no religious references.

But at the assemblies, organizers handed out fliers inviting students to a free night rally on March 20 at Santa Rosa High School. The fliers promised free pizza and games. They listed a telephone number but no sponsor.

The evening rally, which attracted about 750 children and a handful of parents, quickly became a missionary event, say some who attended.

Criticism poured into the schools the next day from both Jewish and non-Jewish parents. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council got involved after parents called.

Among the school district's new procedures: checking references of all groups offering assemblies; asking groups if they have a religious orientation; and requiring groups to sign pledges that assemblies won't be used to encourage or advertise religious activities.

"The problem is we didn't ask the right questions," said Alsobrook, adding he was "appalled a religion would do this."

Christian Life Church's pastor denied any malicious intent.

"If they felt they were deceived, maybe we didn't do our job properly," said the Rev. Carter Wood, whose church is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Still, Wood called the event successful because 117 audience members filled out cards saying they wanted "to accept Christ" or get more information.

Barbara Scharf, the mother of a Santa Rosa Junior High School seventh-grader and member of Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami, felt deceived.

She decided to attend the night rally when her 13-year-old son, Brian, came home from school "just flying off the walls with excitement."

But after a few minutes of music and games at the rally, the students were told they needed to listen to a message before they would get any pizza or play more games.

The speaker told everyone to bow their heads for a prayer to "Jesus Christ our savior," Scharf said.

"That's when it got real intense."

Some of the children started to goof off or leave. Then, she said, the speaker ordered everyone to stay put.

Scharf, who also brought her 6-year-old son to the rally, decided to leave anyway. When she got outside, she confronted an organizer.

"I was in such a rage. I was just yelling at him: `You deceived our children,'" she said. "I was shaking. I was just shaking."

But Scharf is satisfied with the school district's response.

"They've never been bamboozled like this," she said. "I feel very supported by the schools."

Jackie Berman, the JCRC's education specialist, spoke to Alsobrook this week and felt assured the schools were tricked by "stealth proselytizers." But she also scheduled a meeting with parents to discuss the incident.

"It's a good lesson for other districts that they should be suspicious of these kind of things," she said.