SALT LAKE CITY — A Bountiful elementary school teacher who last week handed her student William McLeod a wipe to remove remnants of an Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead said the incident was the result of a "total misunderstanding."
Valley View Elementary School teacher Moana Patterson, speaking briefly at a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday, said the boy came into her classroom "with what appeared to be dirt on his forehead. I gave him a wet wipe to clean it off. I had no idea it was a religious symbol. When I learned it was a sacred symbol for Ash Wednesday, I immediately apologized to the boy and family," she said.
Patterson said her entire life has been has been centered on respecting diversity.
"I would never, ever intentionally disrespect any religion or any sacred symbol. It was a total misunderstanding," she said.
Patterson said she hopes the school community can move forward and build understanding together.
Though the fourth-grade teacher said she did not know the ash was a religious symbol, the boy's father disagreed.
"It's very serious where somebody is treated like that for their religion," Gary McLeod told the Deseret News on Monday.
"He explained to her that it was Ash Wednesday, it was from church, and he was not allowed to take it off."
But McLeod said he has no ill will toward his son's teacher and doesn't want her to lose her job.
Patterson was joined by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful. Valley View parents and Patterson's students also attended, many of them holding signs saying they loved their teacher.
“Since learning about the incident, I visited the school, met with a group of parents from the student’s class, talked with student’s father and school district officials,” said Weiler, whose district includes Valley View Elementary.
Weiler said "this is something that happens when people aren't necessarily exposed to other cultures, other religions. It's not always, necessarily, mean-spirited."
The senator invited the boy and his father to the Capitol on Friday where he sat with him in the Senate chambers, attended a closed Senate caucus, and met legislative leaders and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who talked about video games with him.
"We wanted Will to feel special. He had audiences that every lobbyist in this building would be envious of," Weiler said.
William also met with community leader and Presbyterian Church Elder Pamela Atkinson, who told him she also had a cross of palm ashes placed on her forehead on Ash Wednesday as part of her religious practice.
Valley View parents urged the Davis School District to swiftly reinstate Patterson and expressed concern there had been no communication from the school district until late Saturday night, long after the events had made national news.
"We don't want a failed fourth term with substitutes," said parent Tiffany Ivans Spence.
Ivans Spence said education leaders need to "empower and train our teachers so they know what these symbols are and we prepare them for success because they are the front lines of tomorrow's inclusive society."
She added, "If we throw teachers under the bus and we forbid them with a gag order that they can't comment to clear up an understanding then it gets ratcheted up. That's what happened here. She was immediately gagged and couldn't say, 'I'm sorry. It was a total misunderstanding.' I just plead with you today, let's stand by our teachers. Let's be better at arming ourselves with knowledge so we don't lead into holy wars or other potential conflicts."
Another parent, Kimberly Fadden, who is a corporate professional, said the school "district needs to follow corporate America and ensure teachers have diversity training."
These type of incidents also affect teacher retention, she said.
Teacher morale "is at the very lowest I've ever seen. It's so disappointing," she said.
Fadden said she believes media coverage blew the incident out of proportion before the facts were known.
Ivans Spence said Patterson has "worked in the arena of human rights and intercultural understanding, living abroad, living among Catholics, living in Latin America where she's the minority. She is a person who has advocated for minority rights. She's actually teaching teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms to go into our inner-city schools to build tolerance and understanding."
A school district review is ongoing.
Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams had no further comment Monday afternoon. The district issued a statement last week calling the teacher's actions "unacceptable" and affirming "No student should ever be asked or required to remove an ash cross from his or her forehead."
"The district knows and recognizes Ash Wednesday as one of the holiest days of the year in the Catholic faith and that it marks the beginning of Lent. Again, Davis School District takes the matter very seriously and is investigating the matter."
Contributing: Dan Rascon