Teacher Who Forced Student to Wash Off Ash Wednesday Cross Claims Ignorance, Apologizes

A Utah teacher admitted she forced an elementary school student to wash off an Ash Wednesday cross but claimed ignorance of its meaning and apologized for her actions.

Moana Patterson, a fourth-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary School in Bountiful, held a press conference on March 11 to address what happened.

In a 49-second prepared statement, she said: “A student came into my 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.”

“My entire life has been centered around respecting diversity. I would never, ever intentionally disrespect any religion or any sacred symbol,” Patterson added, reported Fox 13. “It was a total misunderstanding. I hope that we can move forward and build understanding together.”

Patterson, who was placed on administrative leave after the incident, did not field questions. She frequently smiled during the press conference while being praised by several parents.

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Valley View Elementary School teacher Moana Patterson at a news conference by parents and students to show support for Patterson, in Salt Lake City, on March 11, 2019. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Her accounting of what transpired differed from that of William McLeod, the boy who arrived at school with the cross on his forehead only to be ordered by his teacher to remove it.

The boy said he informed Patterson what the cross was and what it represented but she still told him to wipe it off.

“The teacher walked over and said, ‘What is that?’ and I was like, ‘It’s Ash Wednesday and I’m Catholic. It’s the first day of Lent,’ and she was like, ‘No, it’s inappropriate, go take it off,’” William told Fox 13.

“She took me aside and she said, ‘You have to take it off,’” William said. “She gave me a disinfection wipe—whatever they are called—and she made me wipe it off.”

“I asked her if she read the Constitution with the First Amendment, and she said, no,” said Karen Fisher, William’s grandmother.

His family declined an invitation to attend the press conference and William’s father, Gary McLeod, said he was disappointed by Patterson’s remarks.

He told KSL-TV that he doesn’t accept Patterson’s statement.

“He explained to her it was Ash Wednesday, it was from church and he was not allowed to take it off,” he said. “When my son explains to you that’s what it is you at least call a supervisor or somebody. Don’t force him to remove it in front of his class.”

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Fourth-grader William McLeod at his home in Bountiful, Utah. A teacher in the predominantly Mormon state was placed on administrative leave on March 7, 2019, after she forced William, a Catholic student to wash off the Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead. (Karen Fisher via AP)

Before the public remarks, the teacher sent a handwritten apology to the boy, and he said he accepted it, calling her “a really nice teacher.” Still, he noted he cried when told he had to wash off the cross.

At the press conference, some parents and students attended and several spoke in support of Patterson, reported Deseret News.

The school district has said it’s investigating what happened and didn’t offer any new statements following the press conference.

Tiffany Ivans Spence, one parent, described what happened as Patterson being “thrown[n] under the bus.”

“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,” Spence said.

In a statement last week, the district called Patterson’s actions “unacceptable.”

“No student should ever be asked or required to remove an ash cross from his or her forehead,” the district stated. “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.”