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.

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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.

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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)