Louisiana school district under fire for “religious” college fair

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A school district in Louisiana is under fire for sponsoring a college fair called “Day of Hope” that allegedly morphed into a religious event. But at an Oct. 6 school board meeting, several board members defended the event and rejected a resolution calling for an investigation and the possible termination of future events.

On Sept. 20, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System sponsored Day of Hope in conjunction with a conservative Christian group known as “29:11.” About 2,100 students attended. Critics say the students were unlawfully separated by gender; subjected to inappropriate discussions about sex, politics, and religion; and not properly fed. Additionally, Trans attendees allegedly were bullied and had water poured over their heads.

The ACLU of Louisiana has requested a meeting with the school board and Superintendent Sito Narcisse, in order to obtain assurances that similar events won’t be sponsored by the school system.

About $9,800 in school system funds were earmarked for the event, though sources told PGN the invoice hadn’t been paid, as of press time. School system buses also were utilized to transport students to the event, officials acknowledged.

The Oct. 6 school board vote rejecting a resolution to investigate Day of Hope was 4-2, with Board Vice President Dawn C. Collins and Board Member Evelyn Ware-Jackson supporting the resolution.

Opponents of the resolution promised that an internal investigation would be conducted, at the behest of Narcisse.

Collins blasted the rejection of the resolution, but said she wasn’t surprised, noting Louisiana is in the Bible Belt. “The board missed an opportunity to be clear and get in front of this [controversy],” Collins told PGN. “Instead, we’re stuck with an internal probe guided by the superintendent who made the mistake of engaging in Day of Hope in the first place — potentially without following proper protocols.”

Narcisse didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment.

Collins said she’s an ally of the LGBT+ community. If the allegations about Day of Hope are true, she wants to make sure they never happen again. Collins said she’s willing to meet with the ACLU. No other board member responded to PGN’s request for comment.

Collins expressed concern there was “discrimination based on gender, discrimination against transgender students, and school-sponsored promotion of religion” during Day of Hope.

A school system spokesperson issued this statement: “The East Baton Rouge Parish School System has partnered with 29:11 Mentoring Families to provide additional support services for students in our district. One of these initiatives is the ‘Day of Hope’ event. The event was structured to assist students with exploring what options are available after high school, along with allowing students to participate in breakout sessions and student-initiated activities and projects. By providing entertaining activities with an educational focus, this event was an elevation of a traditional college and career fair. Students were provided with lunch and a rare opportunity to mingle with their peers from other high schools in one setting. We look forward to seeing what our over 2,100 student participants will continue to achieve with the resources and knowledge gained from this event.”

During the Oct. 6 board meeting, Gwynn L. Shamlin Jr., an attorney for the district, said: “I’ve been asked to look into [Day of Hope] in detail [by Narcisse]. I’ve actually secured the services of special counsel to assist with that. And the process has begun. And I expect we’ll have a report of some sort to the board. As soon as we can do so, we’ll do it. The superintendent is interested in this because he wants to prevent any future issues. And this will give him information to help him accomplish that.”

Shamlin couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.

M. Taylor Brown, an attorney with the national ACLU, said ACLU attorneys want to meet with members of the school board and the superintendent. “The event [Day of Hope] was problematic for many reasons in terms of the law,” Brown told PGN. “We’re hoping this can be resolved amicably. It would just be unwise of them to continue this type of programming and subject themselves to legal liability.”

Brown cited several problematic aspects of the event, including separating students on the basis of gender; lecturing female attendees on how to be “good Christians”; failing to intervene when Trans students were bullied by having water poured on their heads; coercing students to engage in Christian prayers; failing to acknowledge the gender identity of a Trans man; and providing faulty counseling regarding sexual assault and the putative need to forgive one’s rapist.

“Our goal is to make sure this school district is fostering an inclusive environment for all students,” Brown told PGN. “And part of that is making sure they understand their obligations under the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Our main desire is that this [Day of Hope] never happens again. We want to meet with school officials to understand why this happened, to explain why it shouldn’t have happened, and to receive assurances in writing that it won’t happen again.”

Brown said the students’ time could have been better spent. “The school district has a majority of Black students,” she added. “When we think about educational data for Black students and their underrepresentation in colleges and all of the failures of the educational system — that time could have been better spent at a college fair where students actually meaningfully met with colleges and were helped with resumes and letters. That’s so important. And it just saddens me that this event occurred instead.”

ACLU of Louisiana Advocacy Director Chris Kaiser issued this statement: “East Baton Rouge Schools’ Day of Hope subjected students to differential treatment based on harmful sex stereotypes, in the context of school-sponsored religious programming, and without families’ consent. We are all free to exercise our religious beliefs individually. But it is never the government’s role to promote or endorse a specific religious viewpoint. It is imperative that East Baton Rouge Schools remembers its constitutional duties to its students.”

During the Oct. 6 school board meeting, numerous attendees of Day of Hope expressed support for the event and said they were enriched by its programming. However, a few supporters acknowledged it should be modified in the future to avoid any potential conflicts with the law. 

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