N.J. High School Student Wins Concessions In Bout Over Preaching Teacher

The family of a New Jersey high school student who blew the whistle on a teacher who proselytized in class has agreed to an out-of-court settlement with education officials.

Matthew LaClair, a 17-year-old junior at Kearny High School in Kearny, N.J., complained after history teacher David Paszkiewicz told students, “If you reject [Jesus’] gift of salvation, then you know where you belong” and “[Jesus] 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.”

Paszkiewicz, a Baptist who serves as youth pastor at his church, also attacked the theory of evolution in class, telling students there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark.

Weary of the proselytizing, LaClair secretly taped Paszkiewicz’s remarks and presented them to school officials. The officials confronted Paszkiewicz but also took actions that LaClair considered punitive. They broke up Paszkiewicz’s class and sent the students to other teachers. In addition, the school board approved a policy prohibiting students from surreptitiously taping teachers’ lectures.

LaClair complained that he was subsequently harassed by students unhappy about the class break-up. He said he was bullied and made to feel that he had done something wrong.

LaClair’s parents, Paul and Debra LaClair, filed court papers in February, indicating they were proceeding with a lawsuit against the school. But settlement talks were soon under way.

As part of the settlement, teachers and students will receive training on the separation of church and state from the New Jersey regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, reported The New York Times.  

Among topics to be discus­sed is “the distinction between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious doctrine of creationism.”

In addition, the school board will issue a public statement commending LaClair for his “courage and integrity” in bringing the matter to light, and La­Clair’s family will issue a statement com­mending the board. The settlement calls for neither side to admit wrong-doing.

LaClair, who was interviewed by Church & State in March, told The Times that while his personal situation was unpleasant at times, he does not regret standing up to Paszkiewicz.

“I sincerely hope the board and everybody involved possibly learned something from this whole thing,” LaClair said. “[I learned] how hard it can be sometimes to go against the grain, and that a lot of times, even though things may be tough, you still have to go through with it and finish it.”