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Schools grapple with sometimes awkward, ill-defined moment-of-silence
Associated Press
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Published: 10/17/2007 7:23 AM | Updated: 10/17/2007 7:31 AM

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CHICAGO -- Opponents say it's an end run around the Constitution and amounts to school prayer. Supporters insist it's simply what the law says it is: A moment of silence.

Whatever the case, hundreds of public schools in Illinois are grappling with the practicalities of new legislation that requires a brief period of silence in every classroom at the start of every school day.

Some school administrators complain the law — which went into effect immediately after lawmakers approved it this month — is too ill-defined and puts many teachers and some students in an awkward position.

"There's a lot of room for interpretation," said Jill Kingsfield, an assistant principal at Bensenville's Fenton High School, which this week began observing 15 to 20 seconds of silence each day. "How it'll all end up is a mystery. ... And how are they going to monitor this? Are there going to be the moment of silence police checking on us?"

Others say the requirement cuts into precious minutes in an already limited teaching day.

"I just can't see the sense of replacing a moment of teaching with a moment of silence," said Mary Erickson, board president of Evanston/Skokie School District 65. "You want to have every moment you can to teach."

The Illinois law originally passed during the spring legislative session, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed it, saying he had doubts about its constitutionality. The Senate overrode his veto early this month, and the House did the same last week.

An Illinois law called the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act already allowed schools to observe a moment of silence if they wanted. The new bill changed just a single word: "may" observe became "shall" observe.

Several other states also have a mandated moment of silence, including Indiana and Texas. Lawyers say courts have shown a willingness to let such laws stand as long as the intent of lawmakers isn't to mandate prayers.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged similar laws in the past, but it declined to comment Tuesday on whether it might challenge the Illinois law.

Meanwhile, it's not clear how many schools in the state are complying.

Erickson said her suburban Chicago district intends to follow the law. But she said instructions from state officials on just how to do that haven't been forthcoming.

Among the details administrators would have liked: Whether a moment of silence is a matter of seconds or minutes. Texas, for instance, mandates one minute of silence.

Fenton High School officials discussed it among themselves and arrived at the 15-20 second period, observed after the 8:00 a.m. school bell. If they choose, teachers can take attendance through the moment of silence, Kingsfield said.

"It's all completely arbitrary," Kingsfield said.

In lieu of other details, Fenton High School also ended up reading the 16-line law to students on Monday.

The Illinois State Board of Education sent out a note reminding schools the law was in effect and encouraged them to comply, but it offered no specific guidance, including how much time to take for the period of silence.

"What is a brief moment to a kindergartner may not be a brief moment to a 12th-grader," said state board spokesman Matt Vanover. "Implementation is going to have to be decided on a local basis."

The law includes no enforcement provisions and no penalties for schools who don't comply, Vanover said.

Even so, some administrators say they hope they can find a legal way of opting out.

Erickson, the school board president for Evanston/Skokie School District 65, said it wasn't clear if districts or schools can ask for an exemption from the law. But if they could, her district would consider asking for one.

"I see it as the state getting its foot into our teaching day," she said. "They shouldn't do that any more than they've already done."