Friday, February 02, 2007

First step, get rid of the witnesses

Back in December, I wrote about a New Jersey student who recorded his history teacher engaging in lengthy religious harangues. I'll repost part of that story here:

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah's ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

"If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong," Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. "He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he's saying, 'Please, accept me, believe.' If you reject that, you belong in hell."

Classy, no?

After hearing one such harangue, one of his students, Matthew LaClair, tape-recorded eight subsequent classes, then complained to the school district.

At the time, the district said they had disciplined Paszkiewicz, but declined to say how. Now the other shoe has dropped.

After a public school teacher was recorded telling students they belonged in hell if they did not accept Jesus as their savior, the school board has banned taping in class without an instructor’s permission, and has added training for teachers on the legal requirements for separating church and state.

Training? Fine. But banning the tape-recording of classes? Besides obstructing learning -- some students record their classes to aid in their studying -- it seems an odd thing to do after a recording documented a problem that needed to be addressed.

The school board's stated rationale is privacy:

After several students complained to the school board that their voices had been broadcast on the Internet and on television news programs without their consent, the board adopted a policy in mid-January that requires students to request permission from an instructor to record or videotape a class.

Beyond the question of whether anyone has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom (answer: probably not), the problem would seem to be with the act of broadcasting, not the act of recording. So the school board's ban seems unnecessarily broad -- and raises the question of whether they simply want to avoid any more embarassing revelations.

Especially because whatever disciplinary action they took apparently didn't work:

Meanwhile, Matthew said that Mr. Paszkiewicz recently told the class that scientists who spoke about the danger of global warming were using tactics like those Hitler used, by repeating a lie often enough that people come to believe it.

Context is everything here. Schools are supposed to be about intellectual inquiry, which can include lively debate on controversial topics. And at least this isn't religious proselyzation. But it's difficult on the surface to see what relevance global warming has to American history, Paszkiewicz's assigned subject.

That's not necessarily a problem; off-topic discussions should be allowable. So if this was an open debate, fine; if it was a teacher subjecting his students to a political diatribe, it's a problem. For my money, it's difficult to imagine a teacher legitimately invoking Hitler in such a discussion.

It's up to the school district how they want to handle the teacher. But banning recording devices strikes me as a poor decision intended more to shield the district from scrutiny than to protect legitimate privacy concerns.

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