The Tibetan bell no longer tolls at Warstler Elementary in Plain Township.
The school had adopted a practice called mindfulness, but stopped after some parents and community members raised concerns the technique was linked too closely to Eastern religions like Buddhism.
“There was no malice from anyone in the district to bring something in that was not appropriate,” Superintendent Brent May said in a recent interview. “As we kept digging and researching, we found the roots to it. We have to be careful as a public school that we don’t cross over church and state.”
The Plain district piloted mindfulness at Warstler in 2011 and was so pleased with the results it started the practice in its other elementary schools in 2012 and planned to expand it to the district’s other schools this year. Mindfulness involves using techniques like “belly breaths” and “mindful movements” to improve students’ focus and help them better cope with their emotions.
It is used in other schools in Ohio, including in Warren and Youngstown, but Plain was the only district in the Akron-Canton area practicing it.
The Beacon Journal wrote about Warstler practicing mindfulness in December as part of a series that looked at civility issues in the community. The story described how the school began the day with the ringing of a Tibetan bell in the school auditorium, followed by a contemplative period to start the day. School leaders and students spoke positively about the practice.
May said the program was stopped in all of the Plain schools about six weeks ago after district officials received emails and phone calls and talked to people in the community who were concerned about it being taught. Joel McNenny, the counselor at Warstler and a big proponent of the practice, was holding training sessions with students that included practicing meditation, stretches and breathing exercises.
May said the schools have retained some of the breathing exercises that teach students to “take a breath before they act,” but has stopped the mindfulness training sessions.
“It was a district decision that, at this time, we are going to re-evaluate it,” Warstler Principal Jody Ditcher said. “Sometimes, you do pilot programs and continue them or stop and re-evaluate.”
Ditcher said she taught for 10 years and has worked as a principal for 12 years, and “programs come and go, but people, they’re your constant.”
“You can’t get so invested into a program,” she continued. “In time, it will antiquate itself.”
Ditcher, though, was positive about mindfulness in December, crediting it for helping boost the school’s performance index on the state report cards, a measure that had been stagnant for several years in the ’90s before jumping to 105.9.
“I can’t imaging running a school without it,” she said at the time.
Melanie Snedeker, vice president of the Warstler PTO, was among the parents who had concerns about mindfulness. She said she didn’t have a problem with the “belly breaths,” which she equates with other techniques like counting to 10, but didn’t like how school time was being devoted to teaching mindfulness.
“They were taking it too far,” said Snedeker, a mother of three who was prepared to send her kindergartner somewhere other than Warstler next year if mindfulness was still being taught to the same extent.
“They were taking valuable time away from education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs. I just didn’t see it happening,” she said.
Snedeker also didn’t think the district did a good enough job of communicating with parents about mindfulness and what it involved.
“Once I started talking to parents, they had no clue this was going on,” she said. “As soon as it comes out that there’s a new website we will do for math, they are all over it. When it came to mindfulness, they kept their mouths shut. Why the lack of communication if it is so awesome?”
Not all parents were opposed, with some wanting mindfulness to continue as it was being taught. Snedeker thinks this division is why the district got rid of the program.
Some are disappointed that mindfulness is no longer being taught in any Akron-Canton area schools.
This includes those associated with the Akron-Canton Shambhala Meditation Center, which opened a new, bigger center last week in Cuyahoga Falls.
Richard Weiner, an instructor at Shambhala, said the center is Buddhist, but mindfulness is not. The center is interested in mindfulness because of its use of meditation and shared the Beacon Journal story about Warstler with its members worldwide on its website and on Facebook.
“The mindfulness practice is a tradition shared by virtually every religion on earth, including Christianity,” Weiner said. “It is about the ability to be more aware of your surroundings and who you are in earth. There is no religion in it. … It is unfortunate that that was misunderstood.”
Weiner pointed out that U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who wrote a book about mindfulness, A Mindful Nation, is Catholic.
Rep. Ryan’s view
Ryan, who had visited Warstler and was pleased the school had adopted mindfulness, wasn’t happy to hear it had been discontinued. He has said he would like to see the practice expanded to more schools.
“It is a shame that a program that successfully taught children how to discipline their minds and control their emotions is being taken out of the school,” he said in a written statement. “This approach is being used by the United States Marine Corps and corporations like Google, Target and General Mills. It is also recommended for wellness by respected institutions like the Cleveland Clinic.”
Ryan said getting children to “focus in a world of distraction” is one of the biggest challenges parents face.
“This program is exactly what children need today,” he said. “I hope the school district will reconsider.”