The Joplin School District has suspended a middle school Bible study that had come under fire from a national organization — but only because it was out of compliance with school board policy, not because it was deemed unconstitutional by district officials.

The American Humanist Association in mid-December had issued a letter to the school district about a Bible study program that it alleged involved both teachers and outside clergy members leading students in prayer and scripture readings at North Middle School. The letter said the program took place in the school auditorium during breakfast on certain days; its leaders invited students into the auditorium and offered free doughnuts to those who participated, the association said.

Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder said Friday that a district review found the North program was a student-initiated activity that complied with other requirements set out in board policy: Participation was voluntary, it was not led or promoted by a district employee, it didn't interfere with educational activities and it didn't use public funds.

But the one area of the policy in which it didn't comply: Student-initiated groups are restricted to the secondary level. The policy, which was revised in March, further defines "secondary" to mean students in grades nine through 12, in accordance with state statute.

"Our staff was unaware of the policy update and its implication for this activity," the district said in a statement Friday afternoon. "As a result, we have suspended the Bible study as it is currently organized."

The Humanist Association declined to comment Friday because it had not yet received a response directly from the middle school, a spokeswoman told the Globe.

Ridder said the suspension extends to similar Bible studies that were offered at the other middle schools. Other middle school programs that remain in place are those that are sponsored by the schools and district employees, such as athletic teams, clubs and tutoring programs.

Community groups that want to sponsor activities, including religious activities, are still welcome to do so by paying rental fees in accordance with the district's policy on buildings and other properties, Ridder said.

"It happens in a few elementaries" in Joplin, he said. "There's nothing illegal about that as long as they're paying the fee."

The association previously said it was notified of the Bible study by a parent who has both a son and daughter at North. Ridder said he hopes parents will bring future concerns to the attention of their building principals or administration in order to work through them.

"I don't know why the parents didn't go right to the site, and we could have taken care of it," he said. "I want to encourage communication. ... We will follow policy, and we want to serve the parent and child."

Still pending

The American Humanist Association in 2015 filed suit against the Joplin School District for sending students to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, formerly The Bridge, for a field trip. That case remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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