From Herald-Tribune:

NORTH MANATEE — A Washington-based group that advocates the separation of church and state claims that teachers and the principal at a Manatee County school regularly take part in prayer meetings on the school grounds.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is preparing to file a complaint with the school district stating that school staff at Mills Elementary School regularly participate in prayer meetings and that school principal Mike Rio has announced the meetings over the public address system.

The complaint states that Rio took part in one meeting held at the back of the school on National Day of Prayer.

School employees taking part in on-campus prayer meetings with students violates the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution, said Joe Conn, a spokesman for the group.

“The courts have been very strict when it comes to kids: School officials and teachers are not allowed to influence kids,” Conn said. “It’s definitely a violation of the Constitution to pressure kids to pray or to make a decision about prayer.”

The group’s complaint echoes that of fired Mills teacher Mary Cropsey, who said Rio placed Christian items around the flagpole at the school in Parrish and joined others there for prayer.

The claim was made after Cropsey was accused of helping a student cheat on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and placed on administrative leave. Manatee County School Board members ruled later that the evidence did not support the cheating claims, but Cropsey was fired because she did not cooperate with the investigation.

Rio, the Mills principal, could not be reached for comment Monday.

For decades, youth ministries in the United States have organized “Meet Me at the Pole” gatherings as a way to have group prayer before school starts. In fact, the movement has grown so large that the National Network of Youth Ministries, which organizes an event each September, has its own Web site and asks thousands of students to report on their experience online.

“If they’re talking about ‘Meet Me at the Pole,’ that goes on everywhere across the country,” said John Bowen, the School Board attorney, who said he has not received the complaint. “That activity is within grounds of the First Amendment as long as school personnel do not participate and only are present for supervision.”

Bowen also said schools are permitted to publicize prayer events if requested to by students.

“Just as any other student events might be announced over the intercom, principals are free to announce that,” Bowen said.