Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Thomas Jefferson Student Activist award: Exposing teacher’s theology in biology class

Vol. 36 No. 05 June/July 2019
Zoe Dean                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Zoe has received FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award of $2,000, endowed by a generous couple who are FFRF members. Note: Although the Daviess (Ky.) County Public School District did not fire the teacher in question after Zoe blew the whistle on her proselytizing in biology class, the teacher has signed a letter of intent to resign. The Freedom From Religion Foundation worked with Zoe and her parents. Reports Legal Fellow Colin McNamara: “I’m incredibly proud of Zoe for her courage. She stood up for what was right in the face of resistance from an out-of-line teacher and complicit classmates, but she stood firm. Because of her report and the evidence she gathered, the district could not deny the massive Establishment Clause problem staring them square in the face, and they had no choice but to correct it. I’d also like to commend the district for the thorough investigation and stern disciplinary actions that they took to ensure that this teacher never pulls a stunt like this again.”

By Zoe Dean

It was a Friday when the “Skimehorn Incident,” as I’ve been referring to it, started.

A video was shown by Ms. Stefanie Skimehorn, the teacher, during my third block Pre-AP Biology class. The video consisted of a pastor excitedly talking about a galaxy that had an “X” at the center of it. He claimed that this “X” shape was actually a cross, meaning that humans, and everything else in this vast universe, must have been created by God. This was the second time my teacher had shown this kind of video in my biology class.

The first time this happened, Ms. Skimehorn announced that if any one of us were offended by the word “God,” we could leave the classroom or plug in ear buds. I considered it, but I realized that if I left or ignored the video, I would be ostracized. If anyone had stepped outside that classroom, they would have been painted as someone who was “offended” by the word “God.” I feared that people would view me as a hater of “God,” and as someone who cannot even tolerate hearing about it. I am not that person. Religion and mythology fascinate me, and I would love to learn more about it — in the appropriate context. Ms. Skimehorn’s instructions before the class made me feel that I had to watch the video or be seen as an intolerant child.

I couldn’t stay and I couldn’t go, so I did the only thing I thought could do at the moment: I took out my cell phone and started recording. I caught the entire “galaxy cross” sermon — and Ms. Skimehorn beside it — on video. This video had nothing to do with biology, let alone science. I was shocked that none of the other students seemed at all bothered by the video, showing no outward indication that they felt any concern.

After class, everyone was released to lunch. Usually there are one or two people left in the classroom, myself included, after the majority has rushed out. I noticed that someone else had stayed behind, someone who I’d never noticed staying behind before. I didn’t think much of it and just went on my way.

I sat down in the lobby to relax and watch YouTube videos. Just as I was getting settled and had a video up and my ear buds in, I heard someone call my name. I looked up and saw Ms. Skimehorn approaching me. I pulled out my ear buds as she sat beside me. She told me that another student had seen me recording her in class. This student claimed that I had texted the video to someone, saying that I’d been “forced to watch it.”

I admitted to her that I had recorded the video. However, I did not mention that I had also purposefully recorded her face, to allow for identification later on, in case there was something more to this whole situation. I had not actually managed to successfully send it to anyone, as the video file was too large, but I didn’t mention this.

Ms. Skimehorn then attempted to get me to delete the video. She had allowed me to work on projects alone in the past, which she brought up in requesting that I delete the video. It felt like she was forcing my hand, trying to get me to delete the recording by manipulating our relationship.

Just as I was starting to panic, Ms. Skimehorn turned for a moment to speak with someone else. When she returned, she asked if I had deleted the video. I told her I had, but I had not.

On Monday, I was called to the front office just as my first class was about to end. I grabbed my things, my heart pounding. While walking to the office, I phoned my father about what to do. He advised me not to respond to any questions about the incident and to have the vice principal call him. Vice Principal Lance Blue immediately told me that he had heard that I had been recording videos during class and wanted to know if it was true. I did as my father had requested and put him in touch with the vice principal.

As I was listening to the conversation, I noticed a couple of things in the office, including an image of horses with wording at the bottom: ‘”God,” “Jesus,” and “Christ,” and a cross with small lettering around the bold word, “Praise.”

Then I heard Vice Principal Blue tell my father that what I had done was illegal. I was terribly anxious.

I was released to my second block class. During my third block class — AP Biology with Ms. Skimehorn — I was told me to grab my things and go see Principal Matt Mason in the front office. I assumed I had been called down, but apparently Mr. Mason had no idea that I was coming.

Considering the obvious tension between Ms. Skimehorn and me, Mr. Mason suggested that I stay out of her class for the day. In my nervous state, I agreed and was sent to the guidance office, where I sat mostly in a tense silence as I attempted to take my mind off of the situation by doing school work, finding little success.

On that Tuesday, I was switched out of Pre-AP Biology into a different class — CP Accelerated Biology. This was a silver lining. Despite being a less “advanced” class than Pre-AP Biology, I actually liked it far better. The teacher didn’t switch off topic nearly as much and had a more professional feel to her style of teaching.

The rest of the week went by normally, although I still was slightly nervous whenever a school phone rang. I didn’t want to return to the front office for those tense conversations.

Things cooled down after that. I was unsure whether Ms. Skimehorn and Vice Principal Blue would face any consequences for their actions, and I frankly doubted it. Neither I nor my family received any notice on what the administration intended to do to make sure this didn’t happen again.

That’s when my parents contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF took action almost immediately, sending a letter to the superintendent shortly after we reported the incident to them. Without FFRF keeping pressure on it, the school district probably wouldn’t have done anything. But with FFRF watching and waiting, the school actually did the right thing. FFRF uncovered records showing that Ms. Skimehorn had been severely disciplined for her conduct and was ordered to “discontinue utilizing any content or materials in [her] classroom that are of a religious-based nature from this point forward.”

I am so grateful to FFRF for its help.

I had thought Ms. Skimehorn was a good teacher. But, looking back, I can no longer consider that she truly cared about teaching us when she used her classroom to push her religious views.

Zoe, 17, will be a high school junior in the fall. “I have a passion for art and a love for animals. While I’m a visual artist, someone who works with media ranging from graphite drawings to ceramic sculptures, at heart I absolutely adore auditory art and music. Once in college, I will be working on a degree in zoology. But, as a side goal, I plan to learn a programming language so that I may create my own video games which, to me, is a fascinating art form in which a story can be told through an interactive world.”