A Denver-area school district is being sued over a program that encourages teens to success by recommending family support, diligence in homework, honesty, integrity and tolerance.

That’s because among the 40 points in the “Developmental Assets that Teenagers Need to Succeed” is listed No. 19, the acknowledgement that, “My family participates in a religious or spiritual community.” Two families of atheists say that’s offensive.

“To us that means go to church once a week,” said Bob Tiernan, with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “And we object to it on the basis that this is the government, the public school system telling the students that they should go to church once a week.”

He told KMGH Channel 7 in Denver the plaintiffs, “felt the school district was saying their children really aren’t good citizens because they don’t go to church once a week.”

“They felt left out, alienated by the school system. That is why we brought the lawsuit,” he said.

The assets were developed by Search Institute, which describes the 40 items in the list as “concrete, common sense, positive experiences and qualities essential to raising successful young people.”

The program has been in the district since the 1990s, and categorizes the components as internal and external assets, which are “about supporting and empowering young people, about setting boundaries and expectations, and about positive and constructive use of young people’s time,” the institute said.

“The 20 internal assets identify those characteristics and behaviors that reflect positive internal growth and development,” it continued. “These assets are about positive values and identities, social competencies, and commitment to learning.”

Among the ideologies endorsed in the program:

  • My family loves and supports me

  • My school has a caring environment

  • My family and I serve others

  • My teachers and parents have realistically high expectations of me

  • I am around adults who model responsible behavior

  • I participate in school or community programs

  • I do homework when it is assigned.

  • I care about others

  • I value honesty

  • I am optimistic about my future.

  • I am comfortable with people who are different from me

The institute, which was begun in 1958 as an applied social science research organization, focuses on the “healthy development of all children and youth in multiple settings in community and society.”

Tustin Amole, a district spokesman, said the project complies with legal requirements because there are no requirements for participating in anything religious.

“These are suggestions for families. We don’t compel families to follow any of the suggestions or guidelines in there,” he said. “These are ways that research has found that communities can empower children to do well in school and to do well in life.”

The project is promoted to families to help students become “responsible, confident and healthy” people. The program explains that research shows more positive behavior is exhibited by students with 30 or more of the factors.

The district said this is the first challenge to the program since it was launched.

“We expect that we will prevail,” Amole said.

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