In this AJC file photo, kindergarten students at Bob Mathis Elementary School do yoga with instructor Sedef Dion. Students at the school in DeKalb County get yoga as part of their unstructured time during the day. Administrators and teachers say their students exposed to yoga are more focused, and some students themselves have found it helps with their classwork. A small but growing number of metro Atlanta schools have embraced yoga, though it triggered litigation in Cobb County, where a lawsuit says Christian parents at one school complained that it endorses a non-Christian belief system. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cobb school board approves settlement over yoga lawsuit

The Cobb County School District has approved a settlement agreement with an assistant principal who said she was transferred to another school after parents protested her introduction of yoga-based techniques to students. 

The board, at a called meeting on Friday, voted 4-3 to approve the agreement between the district and Frey Elementary School Assistant Principal Bonnie Cole. The settlement calls for the board to pay Cole $150,000 in exchange for a “full release, no admission of liability and a resignation effective June 30, 2021,” the system said.

School board members Brad Wheeler, Randy Scamihorn and David Banks voted against the agreement. Cole said she introduced yoga to help calm disruptive students while she was an assistant principal at Bullard Elementary School. The practice drew opposition from parents who claimed she was promoting non-Christian beliefs. 

Those parents protested and held a prayer rally at Bullard “for Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” The next day, two women put their hands on Cole’s office window and prayed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported

In her lawsuit filed in April 2017, Cole said the school district caved to parents by transferring her from Bullard to Mableton Elementary School in “a humiliating and public demonstration.” Cole, who identified herself as a Christian, said she did not introduce yoga for a religious practice.

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The Cobb school district responded to the lawsuit by stating it did not violate Cole’s rights when she was transferred to Mableton elementary. 

Though yoga has roots in Hinduism, the practice in the United States is typically a physical and meditative activity that focuses on poses, breathing and sometimes chanting. Experts have said that yoga typically retains a “spiritual” element, however.

Cobb County School Board Chairman David Chastain said the board “accepted responsibility to review the matter and make a decision” that was in the best interest for the district and the parties involved.

“As with many challenging decisions, not everyone agreed, but the group voted and arrived at a consensus,” he said. 

Scamihorn said he voted against the agreement because the school district did “nothing wrong.” Anyone who signs a contract with Cobb County Schools works at the pleasure of the district and school board, and the system reserves the right to transfer any employee to any facility it sees fit, Scamihorn said. 

“That goes for me, too,” he said, referring to the time when he taught for 22 years at four different schools in the Cobb County School District. 

Ed Buckley, who represented Cole, said he was disappointed that the entire school board didn’t approve the settlement, but was glad to see that the majority “felt wisdom was a better part of valor. Buckley said his client, who was transferred in April from Mableton Elementary to Frey Elementary School, will receive full retirement benefits once she leaves the school system. 

“She wanted to move on with her life,” he said. “The trauma that she would have experienced going through a jury trial wasn’t something she was looking forward to.” 

Buckley also said the case serves as a cautionary tale for school districts or government entities that are being influenced by groups trying to “tilt the playing field” in terms of curriculum or government policy and function.

“They need to look at that with a jaded eye and recognize that succumbing to pressure from religious groups is a violation of the Establishment Clause and can result in a claim or lawsuit being brought,” he said, referring to the portion of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the establishment of a religion by Congress. 

AJC reporters Ty Tagami and Rose French contributed to this report.

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