Student's Fight Against Preaching Teacher: Part 2
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. This is the second part; you can read the first part here.
We had a viable case for violation of my civil rights. In addition to telling me indirectly that I belong in hell, Mr. Paszkiewicz said to me personally and in open class that if I was sincerely seeking I would give up my religious beliefs and "put my finger in Jesus' side," in reference to the apostle Thomas. Not only was he telling me that my religious beliefs were wrong, he was saying that I was insincere and so were my parents. So since we had a viable case, we hoped that the board might do something now.
The media attention from it did produce results, but not the results I was looking for. As soon as the story hit the local papers, my classmates started bullying and harassing me and defending the teacher. Students who had acknowledged to me privately that they knew Paszkiewicz was out of line were suddenly saying on TV interviews that he had done nothing wrong and that I was to blame for whatever he might have said or done.
The administration knew that I was being harassed verbally and that I was getting threats. To make things worse, Mr. Mooney, the superintendent of schools, was quoted in the Jersey Journal saying that Mr. Paszkiewicz was a wonderful teacher who had done nothing wrong and was only conducting a high level discussion in the context of American history. (I'm still not aware of dinosaurs existing during American history, or what is high-level about telling high school juniors that they belong in hell.)
On December 18th, everything changed. The New York Times ran the story, and at that point, no pun intended, all hell broke loose. The story ran in the Times in the morning, and within the next three days, I was interviewed on five different national programs. Within two days I had more than three hundred messages of support from all over the world. On January 1st, the Village Voice ran a piece. Now the issue wasn't going away.
What finally got the Board moving however, were two events that occurred in mid-February. On Presidents' Day, we held a well-attended press conference at the Newark offices of the ACLU. Besides the ACLU at the press conference, our attorneys from the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a major New York City law firm with offices all over the world, and a representative from People for the American Way, which was also lending assistance. The conference lasted more than an hour, and was covered on all the regional news channels.
The following evening, I spoke at the Board of Education meeting. Local press covered the meeting, which made the 10:00 and 11:00 news all over the metropolitan region. Mr. Paszkiewicz made his first public appearance and was promptly mobbed by cameras. Mr. Paszkiewicz, his family and his lawyer basically said that I set him up. Remember that meeting in Mr. Somma's office on October 10th, and how I said that I could handle myself even though my parents were not allowed to be there? Well, Mr. Paszkiewicz had just written a letter, which our local newspaper published, stating that he had told the truth in that meeting. Since that implied that I was not telling the truth, I had little choice but to tell the Board that I had also recording the meeting in the principal's office. To this day, I do not know if the Board has ever listened to the recordings.
In any case, shortly after I gave the Board of Education the recording of the meeting in the principal's office, they began negotiating with us. It took two months to do it, but we finally settled with them. The terms of the settlement were exactly what we had asked for in October and a little more, because more had happened since October 2006. We agreed that The Anti-Defamation League would come to Kearny High School September 25th to provide in-service training for the teachers on these issues. We also agreed that the ADL would come to the school to educate the students on these issues.
I know that it sounds like I was coming to a close here, but no. We found out something else.
In July, we found out that the ADL could not do the student training. Now, this by itself is not terrible because we could find another way to accomplish what we wanted. However, the Board of Education did not tell us this. We found out through the ADL. Apparently, the Board attorney was told by the ADL back in February that it was highly unlikely that the ADL could do the student training. However, the Board went forward with the agreement anyway, even though they were not 100% sure that all the terms could be met. The simply never told us.
After that, we waited a little to hear something from the Board on how exactly they plan to correct this problem that they had created. They did not say a word. So I had to get to work. I was looking for a speaker or speakers that could do assemblies for the students on these subjects. I was amazed at the help I received and the time in which it was done. Ultimately, three speakers agreed to speak at my school - three people who are very qualified in their fields.
Dr. Kenneth Miller is a professor of Biology at Brown University. He wrote the book Finding Darwin's God, and he co-authored multiple high school and college biology textbooks, one of which is actually used in our school. He also was the lead witness in the Dover, PA intelligent design case two years ago. He spoke at our school on October 10th.
Dr. Charles Liu is an associate at the Hayden Planetarium and a professor of Astrophysics at City University of New York. He will be speaking to the students this coming February.
The third person is Rev. Barry Lynn. He is Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He will be speaking in late November or early December.
We proposed these names to the Board of Education and asked for an honorarium for the speakers, as offered to most speakers at our school. They refused to pay any speaker even one dollar. So I spoke with the speakers we had contacted, and all three agreed to do it for free.
Two weeks before the first assembly was to take place, I asked the principal if he had spoken to the person who would set up the projector and microphone for Dr. Miller. He had no idea what I was talking about. Nobody on the board had told the principal who would speak, when they would be speaking, or what they would speak about. This was another example of the Board putting up more roadblocks for us, but luckily I had spoken to the principal that day.
Even though there has been a lot of aggravation and struggle, I think we finally have accomplished what we wanted. We had said all along that we never wanted money from this, that our issues were preserving and defending the Constitution of the United States of America and defending the integrity of education, especially education in the sciences. It took far longer than it should have taken, but we accomplished what we set out to do.
We had the opportunity to interview Matt at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's conference this October. You can read that interview here.