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Student's Fight Againt Preaching Teacher: Part 1

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Matthew LaClair is a senior at Kearny High School in Kearny, NJ. His work to keep religion out of his school was covered in the New York Times and the Village Voice, among others. His work has earned him several awards, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award. Here, he tells his story to the SSA.

Matthew LaClairApproximately ten miles west of Manhattan is my hometown of Kearny, New Jersey. On September 11, 2006, I walked into Mr. Paszkiewicz's history class with an open mind. The first thing he did was take a roll of tape and he started tossing it to each student, and had them toss it back. I thought this was a pretty good way to start a class, and I began to feel a little more comfortable.

Everything changed when he began talking. After two days of his personal political and religious opinions, I decided that this teacher was out of line and out of control.

I thought perhaps I could speak to Mr. Paszkiewicz, but he said and made it clear that he was on an evangelical mission to spread the word of God. I did not think that it would be a good idea to tell the administration without concrete proof. Mr. Paszkiewicz had been teaching at Kearny High for many years (fourteen, as it turned out) and was well liked by the principal and many other school officials. So I had to have proof.

Fortunately, I had a device which allowed for audio recording for a long period of time. So starting on September 13th, I began recording the classes.

From Sept 13 to Sept 15, the class was told that all the biblical prophecies have come true, dinosaurs were on Noah's ark and all non-Christians belong in hell. He also dismissed evolution and the big bang as non-scientific in favor of biblical creationism, while mocking teachers and scientists who develop and teach these scientific ideas. He said "I don't need to go out and slaughter Muslims, I just need to debate them and they're done." He also said that if his son told him that he did not want to go to church, he would "break his backside, and have a little attitude adjustment." Meanwhile, when a student told Mr. Paszkiewicz about his own religious beliefs that he had gotten from his mother and his pastor, Mr. Paszkiewicz's response was "Don't buy it." Not only was he often hypocritical, but these comments were just the tip of a very large iceberg.

The second week of class I was out sick. When I returned on September 25, I had written and signed a letter complaining about Mr. Paszkiewicz's remarks. After I gave the letter to our principal Mr. Somma, the first thing he did was show it to Mr. Paszkiewicz, along with my signature --- not exactly what I had in mind.

When class started that day, there was no doubt that Mr. Paszkiewicz had been spoken to. The class, which had grown accustomed to his "free-flowing discussions," suddenly found that Mr. Paszkiewicz wasn't willing to speak about certain topics any more. When one student complained about it, Mr. Paszkiewicz commented that he would like to keep talking about those things, but that if he did, someone might change his words.

I knew I had not changed anybody's words. In fact, the letter Mr. Somma had shown to Mr. Paszkiewicz included very little of what he said. Evidently Mr. Paszkiewicz claimed he never said any of the things I wrote in the letter. It appeared as if Mr. Somma was going to take his word, so I requested a meeting with Mr. Somma and Mr. Paszkiewicz. I also requested that my parents be at the meeting, but Mr. Somma refused to allow that, so I had to handle it on my own.

The meeting finally took place on October 10th. Over the course of nearly an hour, Mr. Paszkiewicz would interrupt, harass, bully and intimidate me while Mr. Somma sat quietly and watched, saying virtually nothing. I could not understand why.

I had prepared a list of questions, three pages long, which contained most of the offensive comments Mr. Paszkiewicz had made in class. It didn't occur to them, I guess, that it was a little unusual for a student to have this detailed and this specific a list of questions, but I don't think I got much past the first page with all the interruptions. As to most of the comments, Mr. Paszkiewicz either denied making them or claimed that I had taken them out of context. He portrayed me as an intolerant and ungrateful student who just didn't like the issues he was raising, wasn't open-minded to new information and was trying to ruin his career. He even tried to intimidate me by talking about how he has children and he might lose his job because of me. He also accused me of trying to hurt him on purpose.

So after he denied saying "you belong in hell" for at least the third time, I unzipped my backpack and produced two compact discs containing the classroom recordings.

Saying that the tone in that meeting changed at that moment would understate the matter considerably. Now, you would think that if Mr. Paszkiewicz was upset that his comments had been taken out of context, he would be delighted to see that there were recordings of the class that would vindicate him and prove that I was not telling the truth.

That certainly did not occur. Mr. Paskiewicz and Mr. Somma immediately started discussing whether the recordings were legal and admissible (I guess they meant in court, though I hadn't said anything about court), and Mr. Paszkiewicz decided that he should say no more without his union representative. That was excellent self-counsel, which he promptly ignored. The last thing he said in that meeting was "To be honest with you, Matt, I'm disappointed because I think that you got the big fish. You're trying to hurt somebody, maybe you are an atheist, you got the big Christian guy that's a teacher, known and loved for 15 years and I brought him down - that's my gut feeling." I felt terrible.

My parents took the matter in hand at that point, my father writing four letters up the chain of command through the school's administration and finally to the school board. Our requests were for Mr. Paszkiewicz's remarks to be corrected, and teacher training to prevent something like this from happening again.

Unfortunately, instead of acting to correct the matter, the school authorities all tried to make it go away. For a little over a month, we were basically ignored.

What finally sent us over the edge was a telephone conversation in which the school board's attorney told my father that what went on in my classroom was none of his business.

To be continued...

The continuation of Matt's experience will be continued in the November issue of the SSA eMpirical.

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