Only days into the new school year, Kearny (N.J.) High School history teacher David Paszkiewicz began preaching and denigrating evolution and the Big Bang theory in class. Sixteen-year-old Matthew LaClair, a student in Paszkiewicz’s 11th-grade accelerated American History class, knew it was wrong, but also knew it was too surreal to believe. He needed proof of Paszkiewicz’s evangelism, so he taped his lectures for two weeks and handed the tapes over to school administrators. He soon found himself in the thick of an impassioned church-state debate.
LaClair discusses his experience in this email interview by Americans United Communications Assistant Lauren Smith.
Q: What went through your mind when Mr. Paszkiewicz began criticizing evolution and the Big Bang and promoting the biblical story of Noah’s Ark in your history class?
LaClair: Not only did Mr. Paszkiewicz criticize evolutionary theory and the Big Bang, but he said it was not even a science. Speaking about the Big Bang, he said, “Let me give you a clue, guys: if there’s nothing, it can’t explode!” This is not what the theory states. I was scared more than anything else that this kind of stuff is happening in my school, about 10 miles from New York City. What is going on in the rest of the country?
Q: You told TheNew York Times that you weren’t sure how far Mr. Paszkiewicz would go. Did you think he’d ever go so far as to tell students they belonged in Hell if they didn’t accept Jesus Christ?
LaClair: I never imagined in the first two days he would go so far as to tell the students that if they don’t agree with him, they belong in Hell. I was not sure what to expect, but from what I heard the first two days, I was ready for anything.
Q: How did other students react to Mr. Paszkiewicz talking about evolution, Noah’s Ark and the Big Bang in history class?
LaClair: Most students would just nod their heads in agreement when he talked about evolution, Noah’s Ark and the Big Bang. On the recordings, you can here Mr. Paszkiewicz try to disprove evolution and then ask the students, “Can it be a science?” And there are mutters of “no” from the students.
Q: Were any of your classmates concerned when Mr. Paszkiewicz began preaching? Did you ever discuss his remarks with friends outside of class?
LaClair: Some students have talked to me after class, saying that sometimes he goes too far. But after they realized that I had recorded the class, I would see some of these same students on TV saying that Mr. Paszkiewicz never pushed his beliefs on
Q: Why did you decide to begin taping Mr. Paszkiewicz’s lectures?
LaClair: I decided to start taping the class on Sept. 13 because I didn’t think anyone would believe me if I did not have proof.
Q: How did your classmates react when you exposed the tapes? Why do you think they reacted this way?
LaClair: Most students in the class and in the school became angry with me. I received a death threat, and there have been many glares and very foul language used to me both at school and on Web sites. I think this occurred because Mr. Paszkiewicz is very good at communicating with the students, and they think he is cool. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the students agree with what he was saying.
Q: Some of your classmates have been quoted in national newspapers saying they believe Mr. Paszkiewicz has the right to discuss his religion in the classroom. How do you respond to that statement?
LaClair: I am truly disturbed that many students do not seem to understand the separation of church and state. I am sure that my classmates would feel different if the teacher was Muslim or Jewish and tried to do the same thing.
Q: How do you feel about the way the school has handled the fallout from Mr. Paszkiewicz’s remarks?
LaClair: I cannot believe how terribly the situation has been handled. The problem is not just the school, but the board of education, the superintendent, the [school board’s] attorney and many others in the system. I met with the teacher, the principal, and the department head in the principal’s office on Oct. 10. After Mr. Paszkiewicz denied making the statements he made in class, I produced the recordings. From that point, all the recordings were given to the board’s attorney who told everybody involved not to listen to them. We asked numerous times what was being done, but we were ignored.
Q: The Kearny School District now prohibits students from “secretly” taping lectures. Do you feel students are being reprimanded because you voiced your concerns?
LaClair: This appears to be direct retaliation for what I have done. It seems as if the school district does not want to know what is going on in its schools.
Q: How did your parents react to Mr. Paszkiewicz’s comments and your decision to turn in the tapes?
LaClair: My parents have been supportive all the way. They were very angry about Mr. Paszkiewicz’s comments, especially when he told me that if I was “sincerely seeking, I would put my finger in Jesus’ side,” [a reference to the New Testament story of Thomas, the doubting apostle, who did not believe Jesus had been resurrected from the dead until he was invited to put his finger into the wound in Jesus’ side].
Q: How has your community reacted? Has the response been positive or negative and how has that impacted you?
LaClair: The reaction from what I have seen in the community has been terrible. It bothers me very much, especially because I have known many of these people for a long time. I often do not want to go to school because I do not know what’s going to happen that day. It has not just been a bad reaction from the students, but also from parents.
Q: Are you still in Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class? If so, what has that been like for you?
LaClair: I was in Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class until Monday, Feb. 5. I found on my new schedule that I had been taken out of his class and moved into another. But it was not just me; every student that had Mr. Paszkiewicz that semester was taken out of his class and moved into another. I still see the same students in my class every day, but we are in a different room and we have another teacher. I later found out that this was done at the request of Mr. Paszkiewicz, and it was approved. This has resulted in further verbal abuse and harassment from students who blame me for the switch.
Q: Do you think students in other schools face situations similar to yours? What advice would you give those students?
LaClair: I am sure that students in other schools have faced similar problems, but many probably did not have absolute proof. That is the key. Sometimes the truth is not enough and proof is needed. Even though it may be hard, something must be done when this happens in a public school. To be in America, it is important to participate in the democracy. I urge any student to report situations similar to this, and I urge parents to teach their kids about the Constitution and separation of church and state.
Matthew LaClair is a junior at Kearny High School in Kearny, N.J. The soon-to-be 17-year-old enjoys photography, acting, politics and science. He plans on pursuing a college degree and is interested in a career in television broadcasting, journalism or acting.