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Ban on Santa at Sunset Park School Was Misunderstanding, DOE Says

By Nikhita Venugopal | December 15, 2015 8:26am
 The principal of P.S. 169 in Sunset Park banned images of Santa Claus for being a
The principal of P.S. 169 in Sunset Park banned images of Santa Claus for being a "religious figure," the school's PTA president said.
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SUNSET PARK — Parents say a ban on Santa Claus at a Sunset Park public school has wrecked Christmas for its students, but Department of Education officials said Monday the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.

The administration at P.S. 169, at 4305 Seventh Ave. in Brooklyn, told staff and parents this month that Santa Claus was considered a "religious figure" and could not be displayed in accordance with the Department of Education's guidelines.

While secular symbols can be used in schools, "displays that depict images of deities, other religious figures or religious texts are prohibited," according to a Dec. 3 email from Johanna Bjorken, the school business manager, that was shared on Facebook.

At the end of the email, she added, "in case you are wondering about gray areas: Santa Claus is considered an 'other religious figure.'" 

PTA president Mimi Ferrer blasted Principal Eujin Jaela Kim for keeping St. Nick out of the elementary school.

"We normally talk about Jesus and the Virgin Mary and Wise Men," said Ferrer, referring to traditional religious figures. "We don't talk about Santa Claus."

In an email sent to staff Monday, Principal Kim said the "DOE has recently clarified" that "Santa is considered a secular figure and is allowed to be displayed." 

"I apologize for any confusion this may have caused," according to the email shared on Facebook. 

Kim did not respond to a request for comment. 

According to the DOE, P.S. 169's leadership had misinterpreted the guidelines but did not actually prevent the display of Christmas decorations or discussions. 

Public schools are allowed to use secular decorations, including Christmas trees, kinaras, dreidels, menorahs, the Star and Crescent, and Santa Claus, the DOE said.

DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said Monday afternoon that they “work to foster inclusive communities in our schools."

Ferrer also complained that Kim did not encourage students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school and had asked the PTA to refer to Thanksgiving as the "Harvest Festival."

“She suggested that because of our diversity we have in our school," Ferrer said. "Not everybody celebrates.”

The school did not disallow Thanksgiving celebrations, the DOE said. A note on the school's website maintained that the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in "classrooms as well as at major school events."

"It will also be recited over the PA system every morning going forward."

Assistant Speaker of the New York State Assembly Felix Ortiz, who represents the neighborhood, also weighed in on the matter. "While we carefully maintain a distance  from religious observances in public institutions, we are able to celebrate holidays with visits by Santa Claus, menorah displays, singing carols and other similar festivities. Our courts have long recognized these social icons as part of our culture," he wrote.

The story, first reported by the New York Post, has received local and national attention.

Since Kim took over as the school's principal last year, she has repeatedly clashed with parents, who say she has made unnecessary changes at the school. Last year, Kim reduced the school's lunchtime from 50 minutes to 25 minutes before DOE officials intervened. 

"Ms. Kim is a loveable person but she's not able to maintain a school this big," Ferrer said.