Wake teacher still suspended after rosary incident

While school district probes complaint over rosary dictum

khui@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2012 

— A middle school teacher, who is Catholic, remains suspended with pay while the Wake County school system investigates her for telling students not to wear rosary beads in class.

Patricia Corbino, a sixth-grade science teacher at Leesville Road Middle School in North Raleigh, has been out of the classroom since Aug. 30. Mike Charbonneau, a Wake schools’ spokesman, said Friday the district isn’t able to say why the human resources department investigation hasn’t been completed yet because it involves a personnel manner.

Yvonne McCarty, the parent who filed the complaint, says Corbino should be brought back from suspension and publicly apologize to her students. Neither McCarty nor her 10-year-old daughter wear rosaries, a religious item for Roman Catholics, because they’re Baptist. But McCarty says Corbino’s actions violated the rights of students who might have wanted to wear rosaries.

“It’s about respecting each others’ rights to worship as they see fit,” McCarty said.

But Tonia Pridgen, who worked with Corbino as a sixth-grade teacher at Leesville Middle before she retired, said her fellow educator shouldn’t have been suspended. Pridgen said it’s an example of the lack of support that the school system shows to teachers.

“She was a great teacher,” Pridgen said. “She had very high expectations for her students. Not every parent appreciated that.”

Corbino said this week she’s still not permitted by the school system to talk about the case.

Charbonneau said Corbino has not been suspended before by Wake but said he couldn’t discuss whether there’s been any prior disciplinary action taken against her. Corbino has worked for Wake since 2006 and earns $51,127 annually.

The rosary is a Catholic series of prayers. Catholics use the beads to keep track of the prayers as they proceed through the rosary.

Dress policy

Wake school board policy on student dress doesn’t specifically mention rosaries, but it says that principals are to make “reasonable accommodations on the basis of students’ religious beliefs.”

Some schools around the country have banned students from wearing rosaries because the beads are used as gang symbols by some groups. But in the Wake County case, it seems to be more of a case of a teacher who objected for religious reasons.

The incident took place Aug. 27 on the first day of classes when Corbino explained to students her classroom rules. Among them was a request that any student who wore a rosary as a necklace remove it during her class.

The Catholic church tells parishioners not to treat rosaries as jewelry although some believers, particularly Latino Catholics, do wear them as necklaces. Corbino is Catholic and her brother is a priest, according to Pridgen.

ACLU’s take

Corbino should have become religiously neutral once she stepped into the classroom and took on the role of a government official, according to Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s not her job to police the students about the religious symbols they’re wearing in expression of their religious freedom,” said Brook, who added that the ACLU is not involved in the case.

Ginger Mann, the PTSA president at Leesville Middle, said she’s been assured that the other teachers are helping fill in so that Corbino’s students don’t fall behind. She said the PTSA has tried to stay out of the issue.

“It’s a Human Resources issue,” Mann said. “It’s not a school issue.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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