TYLERTOWN — Students at Tylertown High School sat out of class Wednesday morning in protest of changes that they said make it harder to attend a popular monthly church program known as First Priority.
Students chanted, “No First Priority — no peace!” outside of the school amid a crowd of more than 100 that included parents, elected officials and the media.
At issue was a decision by school district officials — in agreement with Tylertown Baptist Church, which facilitates the program — to hold Bible study and prayer meetings after school rather than during the school day.
The crowd packed the school parking lot after students refused to go to class and instead held a demonstration in support of the nationwide First Priority ministry program and its local leader, English teacher Shannon Fortinberry, who was recently elected Walthall County chancery clerk.
The school district issued a statement saying it made the change to comply with district policy.
“With regard to access to student organizations in Walthall County School District, school and district leaders seek to uphold local district policy which includes language indicating when such student organizations are allowed to meet and the requirement that student organizations are student-led at each school,” the statement said.
Students did not take to the decision lightly, arguing the change in the program represents a detriment to the community and restricts access to church programming. Their main argument is that they will not be able to attend an after-school program, citing issues such as transportation and busy extracurricular schedules.
Students at the protest said an Instagram post organizing the protest circulated widely on Tuesday evening.
Students rode their buses to school as normal, but when they arrived at the high school they did not enter the building.
Instead, they organized a group prayer at the school flag pole that morphed into a protest.
Sophomore Samaria Pittman attended the protest and said she feels strongly about the church program.
“Today we’re out here protesting for First Priority because they tried to take it away from us,” she said. “Not everybody has a way back to school, and not everybody can stay over because they won’t have any way home.”
For Pittman, it’s simple.
“Everybody needs Jesus,” she said.
“We’re out here trying to get Jesus back into our school,” another girl said.
Another student said that before members of the media arrived, gates to the public high school were locked.
“Before y’all came they was treating us like some dogs,” he said, adding that he was not permitted use of the bathroom and students participating in the demonstration were not allowed to attend lunch service.
Tylertown alumnus and mother Valerie Wilson expressed her support for students at the demonstration and for the First Priority program.
“The students have a voice too,” she said. “This is unity.”
Students attending the demonstration were allegedly marked absent and barred from entering the school, at which point parents and community members showed out in force to make sack lunches for students outside of the school. Students who attempted to enter the building were allegedly told that by doing so they would receive disciplinary action.
Senior Kerilynn Wilkins said that the program provides a valuable service to the community.
“It’s important because I see a lot of kids who come to First Priority and it’s the only church they ever get,” she said. “I see kids that sit in there and get over their problems more than they do at home because they actually have somebody to talk to. Some kids don’t have anybody to talk to at home.”
Another girl said that students expect to face repercussions for their actions Wednesday,
“Some of us got zeros because we didn’t go to class and an absentee. That is not right. Why get a zero for standing up for what’s right?” she said.
Tylertown High School principal Dr. Ronald Morgan had no comment regarding the protest or the student allegations.
Walthall County supervisor Fred Magee expressed support for the demonstration.
“The kids say that’s the only time they can really get comfortable. It helped them. A lot of them don’t get to go to church,” he said. “When you’ve got the young kids protesting, they might be the next be the next superintendent, the next school teacher, the next lawyer, the next governor. You’ve got to stand with your future. These kids are our future.”
Tylertown Baptist Church Pastor Justin Knight said the program is present in school districts across the country but the Tylertown program does not fall within First Priority guidelines.
The program is apparently intended to happen before or after school and should include small group study, whereas the Tylertown program is more akin to a monthly school-wide event.
Knight also noted that the program puts the Walthall County school board in a difficult legal position.
In 2011, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to North Pike School district officials complaining about student-led prayer before football games. The school district agreed to stop the prayers and other local school districts followed suit as a precaution. Now, North Pike has a moment of silence at the beginning of games and spectators say The Lord’s Prayer.
Because Fortinberry will no longer be teaching at the school, the program administration decided to make a change now rather than wait for potential resulting litigation.
Superintendent Wade Carney put it rather plainly.
“This is not about First Priority, this is about all student organizations. This is to bring everything back in to fit our policy,” he said. “All of our policies are on our website.”