February 20, 2007
Student, 16, Finds Allies in His Fight Over Religion
By PATRICK McGEEHAN
NEWARK, Feb. 19 — A Kearny High School junior on Monday drew some legal heavyweights into his battle with school officials over a teacher’s proselytizing in class. The American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way Foundation and a partner from a large Manhattan law firm stood beside the student, Matthew LaClair, as he and his family threatened to sue the Kearny Board of Education if their complaints are not resolved. Last fall, Matthew, 16, taped the teacher, David Paszkiewicz, telling students in a history class that if they do not believe that Jesus died for their sins, they “belong in hell.”
On the recordings, which Matthew made surreptitiously starting in September, Mr. Paszkiewicz is heard telling the class that there were dinosaurs aboard Noah’s ark and that there is no scientific basis for evolution or the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
Since Matthew turned over the tapes to school officials, his family and supporters said, he has been the target of harassment and a death threat from fellow students and “retaliation” by school officials who have treated him, not the teacher, as the problem. The retaliation, they say, includes the district’s policy banning students from recording what is said in class without a teacher’s permission and officials’ refusal to punish students who have harassed Matthew.
Matthew and his parents, Paul and Debra LaClair, are demanding an apology to Matthew and public correction of some of Mr. Paszkiewicz’s statements in class. The LaClairs filed a torts claim notice on Feb. 13 against the school board, Mr. Paszkiewicz and other school officials. Such a claim is required before a lawsuit can be filed in New Jersey. “The school created a climate in which the students in the school community held resentment for Matthew,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the A.C.L.U. in New Jersey. She said Kearny High School had “violated the spirit and the letter of freedom of religion and the First Amendment.” Ms. Jacobs added that the A.C.L.U. would support the LaClairs if they sue the school board and might join the action.
Richard Mancino, a partner with Willkie Farr & Gallagher, which is representing the family, said he did not understand why school officials would not “stand up for this student, who had the guts to raise this constitutional issue.” Instead, Mr. Mancino said, they appear “to have adopted a shoot-the-messenger policy.”
Angelo J. Genova, a lawyer in Livingston, N.J., who is representing the school board, said Kearny school officials had addressed Matthew’s complaints and had reaffirmed their commitment to the separation of church and state in the classroom. Bernadette McDonald, president of the school board, said in a statement: “We took his concerns very seriously. The result was that we have received no further complaints about such religious proselytization in our schools.” Mr. Genova said the school board had hired Edwin H. Stier, who was director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice from 1977 to 1982, to independently investigate Matthew’s harassment allegations.
For his part, Matthew said he recognized that “there are going to be a lot of consequences” at school from the Monday news conference. He said he had already felt hostility from students after the school switched his history class from Mr. Paszkiewicz to another teacher.
The district would not disclose what action it had taken against Mr. Paszkiewicz, who is teaching
the same course to a different group of students. He has taught in the district for 14 years.