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Zack Kopplin: Louisiana Public School System’s Harassment of 11-Year-Old Buddhist Student “Child Abuse” and “Potentially a Hate Crime”

Sara Ebarb, Superintendent of Sabine Parish Schools

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of parents Scott and Sara Lane, filed suit against the Sabine Parish School Board, Sabine Parish Superintendent of Education Sara Ebarb (pictured at left), Negreet High School Principal Gene Wright, and Negreet High School teacher Rita Roark for religiously harassing and intimidating their young son. The case is horrifying and cringe-worthy, and it reveals a culture of intolerance, ignorance, and bigotry. I’ll get to the specific details of this case in a moment, but first, it’s worth noting: As appalling as the details of this specific case are, none of this should be too surprising.

*****

I have been covering these issues for years now, and despite the repeated protestations of Governor Bobby Jindal, Superintendent John White, and members of the Louisiana Senate Education Committee- most notably Senator Conrad Appel, it has always seemed abundantly obvious that they have absolutely no respect for or understanding of the separation of church and state and the integrity of science education. Last year, when my friend Zack Kopplin testified for the third consecutive year on the repeal of what he appropriately refers to as the “misnamed and misguided” Louisiana Science Education Act (a law that allows public school teachers the ability to teach New Earth Creationism as an alternative and legitimate scientific theory to evolution), Senator Conrad Appel argued that the law was justified because no one had ever “complained” about its application. “There is only one person who is making this an issue,” he said to Zack, whose repeal effort was supported and endorsed by 78 Nobel laureates, scientific organizations representing more than 10 million members, and petitions signed by more than 70,000 people.

It was a specious and stupid argument, to be sure. But once again, for the third year in a row, the repeal bill failed in committee. Senator Appel claimed that the only person who had ever complained about the law was Zack Kopplin. To him, Zack was the problem, not the unconstitutionality of the law. Make no mistake: The law is unconstitutional, something that Zack first recognized when he was only a sophomore in high school (in a public high school, by the way).

Last April, in an interview with NBC News, Governor Jindal defended the Louisiana Science Education Act, arguing that public school science teachers should teach “intelligent design” and “creationism.” Jindal, of course, was a Biology major at Brown University, and his stance on the issue belies his own education and is reflective, in my opinion, of the extraordinary lengths to which Jindal is willing to go in order to appease a small but vocal faction of the radical religious right.

Today, because of two brave parents and their brave young son, neither Governor Jindal nor Senator Appel nor anyone else in the Louisiana Department of Education can ever again claim that no one has ever been harmed by the Louisiana Science Education Act. While the complaint and the memorandum of support do not specifically reference the Louisiana Science Education Act (which, in my opinion, was a wise and savvy decision), the Sabine Parish School Board and the other defendants in the case are all but guaranteed to make the law the centerpiece of its defense.

Still, this case goes beyond the Louisiana Science Education Act: It speaks to a public school culture that actively encourages and promotes the religious proselytization, harassment, and bullying of any student who does not believe in fundamentalist Protestant Christianity.

The Lanes’s Allegations:

According to the complaint and the memorandum in support, the Lanes’s son, “C.C.,” is a “lifelong Buddhist of Thai descent.” When C.C. enrolled as a sixth grader at Negreet High School (a K-12 school located in the small town of Negreet, Louisiana), he was assigned to Rita Roark’s science class. (I have reached out to Ms. Roark for comment, but as of this posting, she has not yet responded. I also reached out to the ACLU, and they did respond, almost immediately).

Ms. Roark teaches fifth and sixth grade science and social studies at Negreet High School, and apparently, she is an evangelical Protestant Christian who believes that it is appropriate to use her position as a public school science teacher to “witness” (my word) to her students. According to the complaint, when C.C. was a student in her class, she ridiculed and humiliated him for his Buddhist faith; she penalized him on tests for not praising the “Lord;” she agreed with students who called C.C. “stupid” for not believing in the God of the Bible. Roark also allegedly claimed (quoting from the ACLU’s press release) (bold mine):

According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, C.C enrolled in Negreet High School, which serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, earlier this year and quickly became the target of harassment by school staff. His science teacher, Rita Roark, has repeatedly taught students that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is “impossible,” and that the Bible is “100 percent true.”

Roark also regularly features religious questions on her tests such as “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  When C.C. did not write in Roark’s expected answer, “LORD,” she belittled him in front of the rest of the class.  While studying other religions, Roark has also told students that Buddhism is “stupid.”

And when his parents complained to the Superintendent of Sabine Parish Schools, Sara Ebarb, she allegedly told them to transfer C.C. to a school twenty-five miles away because there were “more Asians” at that school. Ebarb also allegedly told C.C.’s parents that he should just “change” his faith. Quoting from the memorandum (bold mine):

Purporting to illustrate her point further, she noted that because she did not find it offensive that “the lady who cuts [her] toenails has a statue of Buddha,” the Lanes and their children should not be bothered by Roark’s in-class proselytization. Id. Ebarb then asked whether C.C. “has to be raised Buddhist” and whether he could “change” his faith. Id. Plaintiffs were shocked and expressed their dismay at Ebarb’s suggestion. Id.

Try as they might to distance themselves from the climate of intolerance at Sabine Parish schools, ultimately, the bullying and the intolerance at this school system were fostered and enabled by Louisiana’s elected and appointed officials, starting with Governor Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White.

Again, quoting from the ACLU (bold mine):

Beyond Roark’s classroom, the school also regularly incorporates official Christian prayer into class and school events. School officials display religious iconography through hallways and classrooms, including a large portrait of Jesus Christ, and an electronic marquee in front of the school scrolls Bible verses as students enter the building.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an order prohibiting the school district from continuing to promote religion or disparage Plaintiffs’ faith and to require the district to reimburse the Lanes for the cost of transporting C.C. to another school.

*****

I asked Zack Kopplin to comment on this case, and here’s what he said (bold mine):

“This proves the point that I’ve been trying to make for years and years, that Louisiana would eventually face a challenge based on the teaching of creationism in public schools. We could do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is policy change that would simply prohibit educators from teaching creationism as science, something that is already unconstitutional. Whether or not the defendants actually use the Louisiana Science Education Act in their defense, which I expect that they will, it’s really all part of one package: Where people in the State of Louisiana, from a faction of the legislature to some public school teachers, believe that creationism should be taught in public schools. They are breaking the law in a horrific way, and we should take away the fig leaf of the LSEA; it only allows this teacher to defend her intolerance. If the allegations are true, she should be fired, because this is child abuse. Actually, it’s more than just child abuse; this is potentially a hate crime.

Negreet High School (a public school in Louisiana) unveils portrait of Jesus (credit: The Independent Monthly, Facebook)

Negreet High School (a public school in Louisiana) unveils portrait of Jesus (credit: The Independent Monthly, Facebook)

39 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very disturbing

    January 23, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on Leaving Fundamentalism and commented:
    Zack Kopplin is getting things done lately.

    January 23, 2014
  3. jann swanson #

    I attended school in Utah as a non-Mormon and can attest to the life-long harm this is doing to the child.

    January 23, 2014
    • M_DuPiedmont #

      I, too, grew up in UT as a non-Mormon (Sandy!) and can back this up. Religious extremism in any situation breeds contempt in the majority and timidity or rebellion in the oppressed.

      January 23, 2014
      • Kurt Steinbach #

        I know. My mother ended her own life when I was 11. I was teased and bullied about it from 5th grade until high school. Only the fact that it was a very large High School, where no one knew who I was, ended the teasing, taunting, and bullying on that front, but nothing hurt more than the 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Tracy, who was a Catholic, telling me in no uncertain terms that my mother was burning in hell for committing suicide. I still remember that, and that even when i told the Principal, Mrs. Elizabeth Barnett and my father, nothing was done. The fact that I’m Jewish and was new to the district and we were still considered outsiders had much to do with it, of that I’m sure. part of why I became a teacher is to take a stand against this sort of thing. To keep students from going through what i went through. All the times I was bullied, I always wondered where are the teachers, and why am I always find equally guilty just for trying to get away from the bullies. This woman, Ms. Roark, needs to be fired. She is no teacher. The administration at this school and in this Parish that puts up with this sort of nonsense needs to be replaced as well. Their time in America is done and was done long ago. It’s the 21st century now. This kind of nonsense is why the U.S. is now falling behind 3rd World Nations in Education….

        January 27, 2014
        • This really hurts me to the core. Grieving families told that their loved one is in hell if the death was by suicide. You might be pleased to know that the Catholic Church no longer teaches that. I know that there are some Protestant sects that still do, though. A good friend of mine lost her 16 year old to suicide. I still remember the anguish visited on her by comments such as what you got from your Catholic teacher. I’m so sorry you had to go through this.

          January 27, 2014
        • seth kim #

          wow, good for you. you have allot of courage and admiration.

          February 6, 2014
  4. Meriale Merson #

    I not only feel badly for this 11 year old child who was accosted by his teacher, but her as well for her ignorance of Faith. People should be concerned about their own salvation or beliefs rather than bully others because they have their own set of beliefs. As a Buddhist I can only state that she need’s much prayer and guidance in her spiritual studies and should be given compassion and understanding for her ignorance. The young man will understand this if he is a true Buddhist. However, we must all have zero tolerance for such behavior.

    January 23, 2014
    • CMFoley #

      You seem to be under the impression that most ‘religious’ people are in it for altruistic reasons. The majority of the religious are so because of three reasons; it’s how they were raised, they don’t question it because that would require thought on their part, it gives them either an imagined or a real-world position of power and hold sway over others, or it’s a crutch to remove accountability of their lives. With those criteria in mind, you’ll find that religious individuals often take seats of power, and from their vantage become the most corrupt and mentally stunted individuals one might find.
      All that being said, how is one a ‘true Buddhist’? If he feels anger, contempt, or shame because of the treatment he receives from others, which is entirely human, is he no longer truly Buddhist?

      January 23, 2014
      • > If he feels anger, contempt, or shame because of the treatment he receives from others, which is entirely human, is he no longer truly Buddhist?

        The choice of the words “true Buddhist” in Meriale ‘s reply may be a bit unfortunate. I think she is just trying to speak to the kid about forgiveness here, one Buddhist to another. The Buddha taught us that there’s no merit in anger and hate. Of course the kid will feel anger and shame, so would I and so would 99.99% of all Buddhists put into this situation. But it’s when we are feeling that anger that we need to remind ourselves of the Buddha the most, and at least try our best to forgive and love those who angered us. We need to examine deep within ourselves the true reason for the anger, and maybe try to fix it. Most of all, we need to purge the hate from our hearts and just understand that people are products of their circumstances. There is great power in forgiveness, and as the Buddha teaches us to practice that power actively, not just as a principle.

        January 23, 2014
  5. The amazing thing is that a teacher can’t understand how this might offend a child, or anyone. A teacher! It’s sad to say, but i feel that real change will happen when these old mindsets aren’t teaching anymore. The younger generation is much more tolerant. This is why Louisiana is on the bottom of so many lists, but it doesn’t have to be.

    January 23, 2014
    • Daniel #

      It’s not that the teacher can’t understand, it’s just that she doesn’t care. The student is buddhist, that means he isn’t as enlightened (haha) as a Christian, so the teacher willfully treats him differently because he has a different religion and she really doesn’t care that it may hurt him because she was probably hoping to shame him into becoming a Christian.

      January 23, 2014
    • Robert Tellman #

      Damian, your mindset that real change will happen when these ” old mindsets aren’t teaching anymore” is in itself offensive and shows your own prejudices. And your statement that the younger generation is much more tolerant is just plain ridiculous. Why do you think in such sweeping generalities?

      Personally, I think that SOME of the younger generation appear to be more tolerant because they just don’t care about anyone but themselves.

      January 24, 2014
      • Nelson #

        Nope.
        The current generation is the best generation.
        We are more tolerant, more open-minded, less religious, and more technologically advanced.

        Statistics speak for themselves.

        January 24, 2014
        • Brian #

          Says the arrogant Nelson.

          January 29, 2014
        • Dare Murdok #

          I somewhat agree.
          Younger generations have more information available to them, open to the exchange and embracing of new ideas and opinions. There’s a lot more freethought and it spreads broader and faster.
          However it’s arrogant and naive to think the “current” generation is the best. there’s always room for improvement.
          It’s weird you mention technology. When the technology has been made by previous generations and built upon generation after generation until we are where we are today. There’s always going to be something better to come along.

          January 29, 2014
  6. I’ve made the below comment elsewhere regarding the original article, but the comment still stands no matter where it is made.

    The acts depicted in the article, and far, far worse, have been happening to a variety of children, throughout the US for over a century. Verbal, mental, physical, and sexual abuse have been the cornerstone tools to terrorize and torture students because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, their”minority” religious and even non-religious beliefs and ideologies. Many children have been victims for other characteristics as well, including financial class of their families and their hobby interests (such as their music tastes, what they like to watch on TV or the movies, what they like to read, and other hobbies as well).

    But until about 30 years ago, much of the abuse was unknown to exist in such quantity because of lower communication capabilities. The advent of the BBS and then public use of the internet changed that.

    Millions of children, as well as adults in communities and the workplace as well, have been victims over just the last century and CONTINUE to be victims.

    And, even when it isn’t formally claimed, it always finds a way back to a “majority” religious “justification” for the abuse. Because religion is the great divider. That is its core intent.

    Many of the stories we read about today are more recent events. But on occasion one will dig up articles about atrocities committed against kids by classmates because of their rumored sexuality. Or stories about kids who, as so many abuse victims do, have committed suicide, not because they are of a particular characteristic, but because of the abuse itself, though the abusers would have one believe the suicide was simply because of the characteristic and the abuse had nothing to do with it. One will read about atrocities committed against individuals in their autobiographies on rare occasions. Most don’t associate religion to the abuse because they want to focus on blaming the victim rather than the core cause of the abuse.

    We keep hearing about how the religion in question doesn’t perform suicide bombings, or outright murder their victims. But their victims HAVE died, either as a result of the abuse or in response to the abuse. But to them, it’s the victim’s fault, not the abusers’ fault.

    I hope they find justice, but there are still so many others who are suffering from such acts, and far worse, and many who had suffered long ago and will never see justice after all this time.

    January 23, 2014
    • I agree wholeheartedly with you, and it pains me deeply that I know exactly what you are talking about without even needing any specific details. I thank technology and the digital age for giving survivors a place to share their stories and reach out for one another.

      January 23, 2014
  7. Reblogged this on Crazy Crawfish's Blog and commented:
    I believe in freedom of religion, not just the feedom to practice my own religion and to try and coerce children forcibly into following my own beliefs. If this had been a majority muslim or Buddhist school and it was a Christian being harrassed and told to change his religion by the principal or go to another school down the road with more anglo-saxon kids Fox News would be camped outside and sponsoring specials on the war on Christianity. This is a public school. Is our Constitution and country too small and insecure to tolerate other beliefs in the same public spaces? It would appear to be unimportant to these Sabine educators. This really is a sad lesson. When we stand by silently and allow this other people’s children, can we be upset or surprised when it happens to our own?

    January 23, 2014
  8. Thaddeous Stevens #

    This is a predominantly ” Baptist” parish and the Baptists there are sadly ignorant of Baptist history and those in Viginia who were persecuted by the state Anglican church . How many Virginia Baptist preachers lobbied for and with Madison for a Bill of Rights clearly separating church from state.!!! Frankly , i am not tolerant of such a public school teachers ignorance. It should be grounds of disqualification and incompetence. Enough of this. The plaintiffs will cost the Sabine School District dearly.

    January 23, 2014
  9. Mark #

    And of course, “Jesus” is Caucasian in the portrait. FFS, Louisiana, you can’t even teach the Bible correctly.

    January 23, 2014
    • Kurt Steinbach #

      I made a reply above about an incident that happened to me. I will briefly repeat it. My mother committed suicide when I was 11. My Catholic-Christian 5th grade teacher, Miss Gracie, told me she was damned and burning in hell. I am Jewish. Hell is not a big thing with us. It was made worse that others repeated this, all Christians, I might add. Christians would do so much better if they paid more attention to the Judeo in Judeo-Christian. Judaism is called a materialistic religion because we care more about and put our emphasis on the material, the here and now. What and who we can touch here on earth. It is much more important what we do here on earth and how we treat each other than what we believe. It’s why modern Judaism and Jews teach about how we treat each other and what we do here on earth as more important than belief or faith. As the saying goes, if you must constantly prove to others and yourself that you believe and put down others, or put down others who believe something else, that says more about the weakness of your faith and belief than it does about them and theirs. This woman, Roark, the administration at this school and in that Parish, they need to go, and stop inflicting their abuse on children. I am a teacher, and abuse of children cannot be allowed. The children must be protected, and if they cannot see how they have been hurting their students, then they must go, for they cannot be trusted, and we deserve better, and so do the children….

      January 27, 2014
      • Dare Murdok #

        I’m sorry you had to go through that.
        The weird thing is, a lot of this developed in the Middle Ages, from “Expanded Universe” texts, like Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost. It’s not even accurate…it’s incredibly manipulated by the clergy of the dark ages.

        January 29, 2014
  10. Colin #

    *The Lanes’ son
    Good article, but people will take you more seriously with proper apostrophization.

    January 23, 2014
  11. Margaret Durocher #

    Oh my. That ‘portrait’ is an affront to the Constitution and a crime against art.

    January 23, 2014
  12. Thank you, Lamar and Zack, for speaking out against injustices such as the harassment of this child in Sabine Parish. I agree with Zack that if the allegations are true the teacher should be fired. Much wrong has been done here and will continue to be done unless strong action is taken against those religious zealots who harass and intimidate and deny the rights of those who think differently regarding religious belief. I’m sure this is not an isolated case, and we all need to be more outspoken in support of separation of church and state.

    January 23, 2014
  13. Dare Murdok #

    If there was ever a need for trolls, this would be it. I’d be such a disruptive little shit…and i would never have such fun again.
    I feel sorry for anyone stuck in that pit of ignorance.

    Hail Satan. ^_^

    January 23, 2014
  14. adam #

    Unfortunately this is sort of crazy is found throughout the south. I teach at a HS is MS and the students and admins treat the atheist, agnostics and anyone not of their faith like they are sub human and will allow students to ridicule them and the admins laugh at them when discuss their beliefs. I ultimately had to resign since as they like to put it ” I was not a good fit for this school” since I would defend these beliefs and not allow the bully to go unchecked….

    January 24, 2014
  15. What is happening in that school is clearly un-Constitutional. The courts must weigh in on this and demand that the school follow the Constitution. That’s the first thing. The second one is the actual bullying of the student. I hope the family sues the school’s pants off.

    January 24, 2014
  16. r #

    I went to negreet my whole school life. My children are currently going there as well. While I am a Christian, I do believe in separation of church and state. I also believe in religious freedom. I have taught my children that it is ok to be different nd not to judge others for their beliefs. My husband and I plan on moving away this summer to get our children out of that school. It is not the same school I went to. Mrs. Roark is a very holier than thou type person and I do not like her. It is very unfortunate that this child was treated like that but I’m glad all this has came to light. Please don’t think we are all like her around here. This might be the bible belt but this whole situation is wrong.

    January 25, 2014
    • kfreed #

      “Please don’t think we are all like her around here.”

      This type of plea, being the equivalent of “don’t paint us all with the same broad brush,” irks me to no end. If this article doesn’t describe your mindset, then obviously nobody was talking about you. If you care about this sort of abuse of faith, then as a Christian please do speak out against it, but don’t make it about you.

      February 8, 2014
  17. Zack, get this to Bill Maher. He’ll have a field day with it and this situation will definitely get national attention then.

    January 26, 2014
  18. Steve Leong #

    AMEN! This is not the way Jesus was! It’s like something out of the dark ages. I feel for the students being brainwashed there. The will be the Christian minority who PUSHES their belief onto others, rather than attract them, by their good deeds. Praise God, that what one sows, so shall they reap.

    January 26, 2014
    • In addition to what you stated, if any children are pushed into embracing Christianity, it will likely be because they are afraid of the teachers and administration of the school itself, and not because they are truly converted. Fear is a poor motivator.

      January 26, 2014
  19. Leo Marchand #

    This is a result of Republicans winning so many Governorships in the last few elections. The Conservative right cannot believe that they lost the last two presidential elections. With this in mind they have decided to push the envelope as far as possible in the state’s governed by Republicans to see if they can enact legislation there that will prove to the public that State Government is indeed more powerful that Federal Government! In their eyes atleast.

    Conservative talk radio tells them that God is on their side. And everywhere they look thru out the South they see others exactly like themselves who confirm to them that STATE GOVERNMENT really is TOP DOG.

    They’ve taken their must precious ideas, Anti Abortion, Anti Birth Control, Anti Gay, Religion back in Public Schools, Restrictions on Voting Rights, Anti Immigrant, Voucher Schools, Pro Military, Pro Corporation, Anti Union, DON’T TREAD ON MY LAND’, DON’T TREAD ON ME,
    Pro Censorship, PRO GUN, Anti Liberal, Anti Democrat, ANTI TEACHER, ANTI FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, ANTI NATIONAL PARKS, ANTI INTER-STATE HIGHWAYS, ANTI PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ANTI ENVIRONMENT, and MOST of ALL ANTI WOMEN and are using State Government to institute these antiquated indeas just to see how far the FederaL Goverment will let them go.

    It’s about time the Federal Government pulled them up short or the Left will regret it for many years to come.

    Unfortunately, our Federal Goverment is wimping out time after time.

    February 7, 2014
    • Got hate?

      February 7, 2014
    • kfreed #

      The voters put those conservatives in positions of power, the voters need to remove them. The federal government is already fighting endless battles with these wingnuts. WE need to start standing up and fighting back.

      February 8, 2014
  20. Marty Kay Zee #

    Rita Roark enabled comprehensive abuse of everything that is American, Imposing her fantasies and abusing children under the banner of science education. She must be fired and kept out of any classroom forever. The entire district should be shut down.

    March 15, 2014
  21. andrews #

    Would it be deemed a hate crime, or a service to humanity, to spank whoever makes these pages force themselves to be so wide that horizontal scrolling is required?

    May 7, 2014

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