Released Time Bible Program survives challenge to volunteers in Greencastle-Antrim

— By PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
Aaron Ziebarth, director of Joy El Ministries, turned to legal counsel to quickly settle a child protection policy glitch. Greencastle-Antrim School District viewed clearances for volunteers from an education standard. Released Time was cancelled for one week until the issue could be resolved.

An issue that had many people upset was settled in a week by administrators of Greencastle-Antrim School District and Joy El Ministries. The situation was addressed publicly Oct. 1 at the school board meeting, with members Eric Holtzman, Lura Hanks, Melinda Cordell, Ken Haines, Tracy Baer, Linda Farley and Jim Winslow present. Mike Still arrived late and Brian Hissong was absent.

Aaron Ziebarth, Joy El executive director, thanked Dr. Bob Crider, chief eductional officer, for the 3:45 p.m. phone call that day that preserved Released Time. The religious instruction program had been in operation for grades 3 through 8 since 1967. Students, with parental permission, were  excused for an hour per week to go off-site for Bible instruction. Currently, the children were bussed at Joy El expense to Otterbein United Brethren Church on Wednesdays.

Released Time is in 25 school districts in several counties, serving 3,300 children. In Greencastle, 269 youngsters attend, and 52 volunteers are involved, primarily as listerners.

Ziebarth reported that Released Time met Sept. 23, but the next day at 3:04 p.m. Joy El received an email from a G-ASD employee stating the volunteers needed to obtain Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) clearances within three-and-a-half business days, or Released Time could not be held.

“I was concerned about government overreach,” Ziebarth said of his initial reaction. “This is what Pennsylvania laws have done.”

The volunteers all had clearances through the Department of Human Services (DHS). In Pennsylvania, PDE and DHS collected the results on employees and volunteers, but the information was not shared. The state had also revamped child protection policies recently, and PDE standards were more stringent.

Ziebarth told the school board G-ASD’s mandate breached three freedoms: the separation of church and state, parental rights, and remembering who the volunteers worked for. He had phone conversations with the school employee, which did not go well, he said.

As word got out to his staff, helpers and parents, they were outraged, he said.

“There is a strong sense of faith in Greencastle.”

“Our phones were lighting up,” said his wife, Stephanie. “People were really upset.”

Joy El used the legal services of Alliance for Defending Freedom to communicate with the district solicitor. They reached an agreement on the legitimacy of Released Time and the status of the volunteers.

Schools needed to get clearance documents from outside agencies after the law upped its expectations, Crider said later. The district was now satisfied with a written affidavit that gave them reason to believe all of the Joy El volunteers had the proper clearances, he said. He did not know why the school sent Joy El the directive at the last minute.

Visitors shared their opinions.

David Ankerbrand said Released Time was important because children loved it, often because the listeners just had the time to spend with them. Sherry Myles called the program important, and part of the moral fabric of society.

Nanette Lackey was pleased with the ending to the story.

“Thank you for supporting this and changing course from whatever happened,” she said.

Crider reassured the audience, “Our concern was never about fracturing the program. We were only trying to follow the mandates of the state.”

Holtzman added, “Legislation is changing the dynamic for schools. It’s been a tough time. I give praise to both sides for working through this.”

Other business

Board secretary Diane Haugh presented the statistics on participation in the Senior Citizen Tax Exchange program for 2014-2015. It has been in effect for 23 years.

“And I’ve been here for all of them,” she said lightly.

The rebate program assisted 258 taxpayers, with the money returned to them totalling $18,923. The average reimbursement toward property taxes was $73.

Haugh said volunteers, most of them parents of primary and elementary school students, donated 2,592 hours. Most of the seniors did not put in time, some because of the clearance fees. Only six went through that process last year, she said. The parents had previously passed the necessary screening.