Why I Don’t Believe an Indiana Teacher Was Fired for Being an Atheist January 26, 2015

Why I Don’t Believe an Indiana Teacher Was Fired for Being an Atheist

Note: There have been a lot of articles this week about an Indiana teacher who filed a lawsuit against his former district saying he was fired because he was an atheist.

Last June, this story surfaced after he filed an initial complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since the details have not changed, I’m reprinting my post about his case below, with a few updates.

In 2013, Kevin Pack was hired to teach German classes at Northridge High School in Middlebury, Indiana. As of last March, he was no longer working there.

We’ve all been there…

The school didn’t explain why, but the district released a statement the following month:

Middlebury Community Schools expects and demands that its teachers be proficient and try to do their best when educating our students. These efforts include effectively delivering lessons to students, conducting appropriate assessments, and timely grading. The efforts also include making responsible choices about material provided or shown to students, treating fellow colleagues and students in a non-combative and respectful manner, attending appropriate meetings and conferences, participating in scheduled activities that benefit students’ educational development, and generally conducting themselves in a professional manner. Most importantly, Middlebury Community Schools expects its teachers to place it students’ educational growth and needs as a first priority. Unfortunately, some teachers do not meet those expectations; Mr. Pack was one of those teachers.

Well… that’s vague. (As expected.) But Pack’s own actions have now filled in a lot of those details.

He says that he was fired after publicly admitting that he was an atheist, leading him to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming he’s a victim of religious discrimination.

Michael Wanbaugh of The Goshen News got his hands on many of the pertinent documents and offers more insight into what happened:

Pack claims that speaking out against [Northridge High School Principal Gerald] Rasler’s religious references during the school year and sending a faculty-wide e-mail indicating he was an atheist, directly led to his termination of employment, not poor performance.

“I was retaliated against and dismissed for filing the religious harassment complaint against Principal Gerald Rasler and for being an atheist,” Pack said in a recent phone interview. “I refused to pray, be a Christian or go along with any of (Rasler’s) evangelizing in the school, and they dismissed me over it.”

It’s true that Rasler referenced his personal faith in inappropriate ways. In messages sent over district email, he said things like “Merry Christmas,” “May God grant you [safe] travel,” and “Please get on your knees and pray for four good weather days during finals.”

Rasler also led the staff in prayer before a school luncheon. (Pack said of this incident that the principal “forced staff into prayer.”)

All of these things strike me as the actions of a man who just doesn’t know any better, not someone maliciously trying to proselytize to the staff. The proper way to handle it is to either inform someone higher up in the district or contact an outside organization like the Freedom From Religious Foundation to send the district a letter (which has the added benefit of letting you remain anonymous).

Pack properly informed the district superintendent of the religious emails — good move! — but then chose to respond to one of Rasler’s emails, the one about getting on your knees and praying, with the following… which he also sent to the whole staff:

Since I’m an atheist and a mystical sky daddy has nothing to do with weather, I won’t be kneeling. I will be relying on science and the oftentimes (sic) in exact (sic) science of metereology (sic). The only relability (sic) we seem to get from weather reports is how often they’re reliably wrong.”

I think I’m more offended by the spelling and grammar mistakes…

In any case, let’s talk about this.

If you’re an atheist working in a very conservative school district, announcing your atheism to the staff with a very unprofessional (and, frankly, dickish) email is undoubtedly on the list of Things You Should Never Do.

He sent that email to everyone. And then, that same day, he had his midterm evaluation, during which the principal noted that Pack “acted aggressively and hostile” toward him in that email.

“He spoke to me with malice,” Pack said during an investigation interview, “and chastised me for sending the response email out. I responded to him, as I had in the e-mail, that I was an atheist.”

Pack further told investigators that Rasler threatened to fire him, a comment that was confirmed to investigators by UniServ ISTA Representative Sharon Frazer who also attended the evaluation at Pack’s request.

If the story ended here, and Pack was fired, his religious discrimination claim might carry some weight. But it didn’t end there.

It turns out there’s also a list of Things You Should Never Do if you’re a brand new teacher and it can be summarized like this: Don’t draw any attention to yourself. Over-prepare for classes. Volunteer to help out your colleagues as much as possible. Become a coach. Take care of any classroom problems before they become problems.

Let’s see how well Pack followed the list:

After an open records request from The Goshen News, [Superintendent Jane] Allen provided more general detail regarding the decision to fire Pack, but did not include specifics to many of her bullet points. Allen indicated that Pack received poor performance evaluations, poorly managed his classroom, lacked consistency in curriculum and assessment, lost students’ work, left the classroom during class leaving students unsupervised, missed multiple staff meetings, was late on several occasions, missed parent-teacher conferences and showed R-rated movies in his class.

Pack claims that the administration wanted him gone so badly following his email and complaint that it nit-picked whatever it could to build a case against him. The R-rated movie in question, he explained, was “Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt),” which is considered standard fare in many German curriculums and had been shown at Northridge prior to his arrival.

Pack admitted to missing parent-teacher conferences due to a medical reason, which he says is not entirely uncommon among teachers. He also admitted to leaving his classroom to make a copy for a student, adding that teachers often leave their rooms for short periods of time.

Jesus…

Look. A lot of really great teachers have a rough time their first year. Classroom management, for example, is a skill you pick up over time. You’re probably not going to be good at it at first.

But to have all of those problems… and then to top it off with an email that was probably offensive to the vast majority of the staff?

He’s not making a compelling case for the school to hire him back, is all I’m saying.

Obviously, I don’t have all the details of his case. My attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. (Kevin, email me.) But based on the information we have so far, it’s hard to fault the school for letting him go.

I should mention that the principal shouldn’t be let off the hook, either. His prayers during at least one staff function and his religious references in staff emails have no place at a public school. He needs to receive a warning and face a more serious penalty if he doesn’t stop.

That said, I’m still having a hard time defending Pack’s actions. I’m positive there are atheists who work at public schools — in conservative areas — who are reading this right now and thinking, “WHY WOULD HE SEND OUT THAT EMAIL?!” I’m not saying he shouldn’t have spoken up, but he should’ve found a more professional way to do it.

***Update***: You can read the Superintendent’s report as to why Pack should have been fired here. Also, here is a rebuttal from the teachers’ union.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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