Between calculus and European history classes at a West Virginia public high school, 16-year-old Cameron Mays and his classmates were told by their teacher to go to an evangelical Christian revival assembly.
When students arrived at the event in the school’s auditorium, they were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.
The Huntington high school junior sent a text to his father.
“Is this legal?” he asked.
The answer, according to the US constitution, is no. In fact, the separation of church and state is one of the country’s founding basic tenets, noted Huntington high school senior Max Nibert.
“Just to see that defamed and ignored in such a blatant way, it’s disheartening,” he said.
Nibert and other Huntington students are planning to stage a walkout during homeroom period Wednesday to protest the assembly.
“I don’t think any kind of religious official should be hosted in a taxpayer-funded building with the express purpose of trying to convince minors to become baptized after school hours,” Nibert said.
The mini revival took place last week during Compass, a daily, “non-instructional” break in the schedule during which students can study for tests, work on college prep or listen to guest speakers, said Cabell county schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers.
Flowers said the event was voluntary, organized by the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He said there was supposed to be a signup sheet for students, but two teachers mistakenly brought their entire class.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” Flowers said. “We don’t believe it will ever happen again.”
But in this community of fewer than 50,000 people in south-western West Virginia, the controversy has ignited a broader conversation about whether religious services – voluntary or not – should be allowed during school hours at all. A group of parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and other organizations say the answer to this question is also no. They say such events are a clear violation of students’ civil rights.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders unique access to preach and proselytize students during school hours on school property,” Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit that promotes the separation of church and state, wrote in a letter to the school district. The district cannot “allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches”, the letter reads.
Last week’s assembly at Huntington high featured a sermon from 25-year-old evangelical preacher Nik Walker of Nik Walker Ministries, who has been leading revivals in the Huntington area for more than two weeks.
During the assemblies, students and their families are encouraged to join evening services at the nearby Christ Temple church. More than 450 people, including 200 students, have been baptized at the church, according to Walker, who said he was scheduled to go to another public school and nearby Marshall University soon.
Bethany Felinton said her Jewish son was one of the students forced to attend the assembly at Huntington high. She said that when he asked to leave, the teacher told him their classroom door was locked and he couldn’t go. He sat back down in his seat, uncomfortable. Felinton said he felt he couldn’t disobey his teacher.
“It’s a completely unfair and unacceptable situation to put a teenager in,” she said. “I’m not knocking their faith, but there’s a time and place for everything – and in public schools, during the school day, is not the time and place.”
Mays’ father, Herman Mays, agrees. “They can’t just play this game of, you know, ‘We’re going to choose this time as wiggle room, this gray area where we believe we can insert a church service,”’ he said.
Walker said he has never contacted a school about coming to speak; it’s always the students who reach out to his ministry, he said.
“We don’t even have to knock on the door,” he said. “The students, they receive hope here [at Christ Temple Church] and then they want to bring hope to their school or to their classmates.”
Walker, originally from the small town of Mullens, West Virginia, has been traveling the state since he was 17 hosting church meetings at schools. He said he came to Huntington on 23 January with plans to leave three days later but saw a need he felt compelled to address.
Walker said he sees a lot of “hopelessness” in the Huntington area: students struggling with addiction, anxiety and depression.
“When you see regions like this, then you really know they need the Lord,” he said, drinking a cup of hot tea with honey to soothe his throat after a couple of hours of preaching.
Tolsia high school freshman Mckenzie Cassell said she was excited for Walker to come to speak to her and her peers. She attends Christ Temple church, where she said she is now seeing a lot more young people since Walker started his work in the schools.
“It’s awesome to see a lot of young kids coming,” she said.
Cassell’s guardian, Cindy Cassell said it’s been powerful to see someone make such an impression on young people in town.
“The kids want it and they’re ready for change in the right direction,” she said.
The Cassells attended a service at Christ Temple church in Huntington on Monday night with Walker and more than 400 others.
At the end of the service, Walker invited people to come to the front of the congregation, where fellow parishioners laid their hands on their backs. They were then escorted into a room next door, where they changed into white robes to be baptized. Some cried as they emerged from the water, the fabric clinging to their skin, their hands held aloft.
White House officials growing anxious over anticipated surge of migrants next month
White House officials are increasingly anxious about an expected migrant surge at the end of May coinciding with the repeal of a restrictive Trump-era border policy that has let them turn people away.
A political minefield
Tens of thousands of migrants could surge to the border once restrictions lift
LA jail guards routinely punch incarcerated people in the head, monitors find
Los Angeles jail guards have frequently punched incarcerated people in the head and subjected them to a “humiliating” group strip-search where they were forced to wait undressed for hours, according to a new report from court-appointed monitors documenting a range of abuses.
The Los Angeles sheriff’s department (LASD), which oversees the largest local jail system in the country, appears to be routinely violating use-of-force policies, with supervisors failing to hold guards accountable and declining to provide information to the monitors tasked with reviewing the treatment of incarcerated people.
The report, filed in federal court on Thursday, adds to a long string of scandals for the department. The monitors – first put in place in 2014 to settle a case involving beatings – suggested that some problems in the jails appeared to be getting worse after they visited the facilities in December 2021.
The monitors, Robert Houston, a former corrections official, and Jeffrey Schwartz, a consultant, alleged that the use of “head shots”, meaning punches to the head, had been “relatively unchanged in the last two years or more, and may be increasing”. They also wrote that deputies who used force in violation of policy were at times sent to “remedial training” but that “actual discipline is seldom imposed”. And supervisors who failed to document violations were also “not held accountable” .
The authors cited one incident in which a deputy approached a resident who had “walked away from him” while he was being escorted. “With no hesitation, Deputy Y grabbed [his] chest and slammed him into the wall. Deputy Y punched [him] 5‐9 times in the head, and Deputy Z punched [him] 6‐8 times in the head as they took [him] to the floor because they ‘feared’ that the Inmate might become assaultive”.
The report also documented an incident on 7 September 2021, when there were reports that a firearm “might have been smuggled” into Men’s Central jail. Guards responded by instituting a “shakedown” and strip-search of residents.
“They said they were taken out of their cells in the morning, given no explanation (except for one inmate who said he was told the reason for the search by a deputy), strip-searched, then walked naked en masse through the jail and down to the room with the X‐ray machine,” the report said, citing complaints from jail residents. “Passing large numbers of male and female staff members, some of whom … mocked them or made other humiliating comments”.
Those interviewed said they eventually got underwear, but still no shoes, and were taken to a yard where they were forced to wait for hours until they returned to their cells later that night.
LASD did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report on Friday.
The monitors said they had written officials in January to ask if this was standard procedure, and whether the residents were given food, water and access to bathrooms while waiting. According to the monitors, the department responded that it had completed a “report” about the incident with “corrective action plans”, but in the three months since, it had not sent documents or further information.
The report raised further concerns about the department’s use of the “Wrap” device, which functions like a full-body restraining jacket and is used to “immobilize” people. The Wrap procedures pose a serious risk of asphyxiation, and “the continuing practice … cannot be justified”, the monitors said.
The department had failed to fulfill its requirement to write a Wrap policy that the monitors had approved, and it had further misled the monitors about how the jail was using the device, the report alleged: “The practices used with Wrap appear to be almost diametrically opposed to the way in which the Department explained that Wrap was being used.”
In 2018, a man in jail in northern California died of asphyxiation after being subjected to the Wrap device, sparking widespread scrutiny of the practice.
The LA jails have for years been plagued by corruption and obstruction of justice scandals, with the former sheriff Lee Baca and his second in command both convicted in cases stemming from misconduct investigations. Guards in the Men’s Central jail have also long been accused of being part of a “deputy gang”, known for allegedly using excessive force. The department has also faced mounting questions this year about the death of a 27-year-old in solitary confinement.
“These are not one-time incidents – this is the culture and history of the department,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a group that has long been fighting to shut down the Men’s Central jail. He said the report reminded him of the misconduct allegations and obfuscation from department leaders in a 2012 case. “After 10 years of exposure, 10 years of scandal, 10 years of reform, this department has had a lot of opportunities to get this right … but has continued to revert back to some of the most vicious attacks on Black and brown people.
“It is clear our loved ones are not safe in the custody of the sheriff’s department,” he added.
Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said it was especially disturbing that the problems seemed to be escalating under sheriff Alex Villanueva, who was elected in 2018: “They are treating incarcerated people in the jails in a sub-human manner … There’s just an utter lack of accountability, which ultimately goes to the top.”
Helen Jones, an organizer whose 22-year-old son died in LA sheriff’s custody in 2009, said she wasn’t surprised by the report: “It’s been this way for so long, it’s just the norm. It’s out of control, and there are no consequences.”
New York fire: At least 19 killed in apartment block blaze
At least 19 people, including nine children, have died after a fire in a New York apartment building.
Another 32 people were sent to hospital, several of whom are in a critical condition, according to New York Mayor Eric Adams.
Fire department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said they had found victims on every floor of the 19-storey block, saying the smoke was “unprecedented”.
He told NBC News the death toll was the worst seen in New York for 30 years.
It comes days after an apartment fire in Philadelphia killed 12, with eight children among the dead.
Sunday’s fire broke out in an apartment that spans the second and third floors of the Bronx apartment block at about 11:00 local time (16:00 GMT), officials said.
Some 200 firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze, which officials believe was sparked by a malfunctioning electric heater.
Commissioner Nigro said there were two floors of fire, but the smoke had spread everywhere.
The door to the apartment where the fire started was left open, and smoke then spread to every floor, Commissioner Nigro told reporters.
“Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” he said.
George King, who lives nearby, told AFP news agency people were waving from the windows as the flames took hold.
“I saw the smoke, a lot of people were panicking,” he said. “You could see that no-one wanted to jump from the building.”
A total of 63 people suffered injuries, including the 32 taken to hospital. Thirteen are in a critical condition, Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor, told AP news agency.
“The impact of this fire is going to bring a level of pain and despair to our city,” Mr Adams told reporters. “The numbers are horrific.”
He told CNN on Monday that the incident was “a wake-up call for all our buildings” to ensure complaints are heard and protective measures are working.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called Sunday’s events “a night of tragedy”, and pledged to create a victims’ compensation fund to support survivors.
“There will be money to find new housing, burial costs and whatever we need because that’s what we do here in New York,” Ms Hochul said.
The area of the Bronx where the fire occurred is home to a large Muslim immigrant population and many of those affected by the blaze are believed to have originally come to the US from the Gambia.
Mr Adams urged anyone impacted by the fire to seek assistance from the authorities, irrespective of immigration status. He assured residents that their details would not be passed on to immigration services.
Speaking alongside Mr Adams, New York Senator Chuck Schumer pledged to provide immigration support to allow families to come together to grieve.
The building hosts a number of affordable housing apartments and the blaze is likely to raise questions over the quality of such units in the city.
Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democratic lawmaker whose district includes the building, told the US network MSNBC that developments such as the building where the fire hit pose safety risks to residents.
“When we allow our affordable housing developments to be plagued by decades of disinvestment, we are putting lives at risk,” Mr Torres said.
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