She thought it was a smudge of dirt or maybe black paint smeared across his forehead.
Moana Patterson said it never occurred to her that it would be anything more, having long taught fourth-graders who always seem to be making messes — and sometimes wearing them, too. She handed the boy a wet wipe as he tried to explain and told him to wash it off. And she went back to the whiteboard to teach.
Hours after school had ended, Patterson’s phone started dinging with so many messages coming in so fast that the screen stayed lit. “Did you see this?” “What happened today?” “Are you OK?” Some included links to news coverage with comments by people who called her “ignorant” and “stupid.” One person posted online that she had a “deliberate disrespect of religion.” Many more called for her to be fired.
The headlines spelled out what the Utah teacher said she had not known: The mark on her student’s head was a cross to mark the holy day of Ash Wednesday. And people were furious — including the Catholic boy and his family — that she had told him to clean it off.
“I had no idea it was a religious symbol,” Patterson said at a news conference Monday. “I would never, ever intentionally disrespect any religion or sacred symbol. It was a total misunderstanding.”
Standing around her were parents and students from Valley View Elementary School in Bountiful, an area in northern Utah that is predominantly home to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They held posters that said “We love Mrs. Patterson” with hearts drawn on them in marker. A few walked up to the microphone to defend her. Mostly, Patterson wanted to explain what she was thinking for the first time.
She said she has apologized to the boy, 9-year-old William McLeod. And she has been put on administrative leave and asked by Davis School District not to talk about it.
“But I hope we can move forward,” she added to claps and cheers from the 40 people crowded around her as she stepped back from the microphone after a brief statement.
The district’s spokesman, Chris Williams, replied to an email Monday saying he had no new statement; he said last week that administrators were investigating what happened. “The actions were unacceptable. No student should ever be asked or required to remove an ash cross from his or her forehead.”
Patterson, holding her head down, responded that to her it looked like a smudge and not a cross.
The news conference, hosted by Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who represents the area that includes Valley View Elementary, focused on what teachers and parents should do to talk with kids about different religious practices and traditions and how to develop tolerance. Weiler said he has spoken with McLeod about how the boy was the only kid at his school wearing the ash cross on his forehead to mark the beginning of Lent.
“A lot of students asked me what it is,” the boy told FOX13 last week.
The senator asked McLeod and his father if they wanted to talk at the event Monday, and the family declined.
Weiler said when he first heard about what happened he was “a little bit shocked and disappointed.” Then, he decided, “that could have happened to me.”
“This is something that happens when people aren’t necessarily exposed to other cultures and other religions,” he acknowledged, particularly in a state like Utah where there is one dominant faith.
All of those who spoke said they hope the episode — which they repeatedly called a misunderstanding — will serve to inform the community and that people will learn from the experience. Tiffany Ivins-Spence, who has a student in Patterson’s class and three others at the school, said she believes interactions like this get blown out of proportion, but there was no bad intent.
“We love Catholics. We love Muslims. We love everybody,” she added. “We’re here because we want to try better.”
Ivins-Spence, who also volunteers at the elementary school, said several of the teachers were crying when she went in on Friday. Many are afraid, she said, that they might make a similar mistake and be terminated.
She noted that Patterson has previously taught lessons at other schools about minority rights. But there was never any diversity training at Valley View.
“We just want our teacher back,” Ivins-Spence said.
Kimberly Fadden, who also has a student at the school, said it was “an honest mistake.” Now morale in the district is “the lowest I have ever seen.” She’s mad there wasn’t more communication from administrators with parents and called for Patterson to be reinstated this week.
At the end of the speeches, Patterson stood in the middle of the group of students and parents and tried not to cry. Nodding her head, she said she’s been in a classroom for most of her life.