In the best of all possible worlds, why couldn't a teacher ask students trying to learn critical thinking skills about whether belief in God is an “opinion,” a “factual claim” or a “commonplace assertion?”
And the answer is: We don't know.
But in present-day, 2015 Katy, Texas, it's because it will get you in a world of trouble, a shit-storm that had Houston-area broadcasters delivering wide-eyed, breathless statements Tuesday night under headlines like: “Katy ISD teacher reportedly tells student God doesn't exist.” In fact, the ABC News report done here was picked up by several other outlets including in Chicago (who knew?) and Raleigh-Durham (more understandable).
Twelve-year-old Jordan Wooley addressed the Katy ISD school board and told Eyewitness News that when she answered the belief-in-God question as both "factual claim" and "opinion," her teacher told her she was wrong and God was a myth. (Jordan explained most reasonably that while it was a fact to her, she understood that some other people would consider it opinion.)
Wednesday, a statement from Katy ISD speaking for West Memorial Junior High, where the non-school-approved survey occurred, attempted to straighten out fact from fiction in the ensuing blowup and insisted the teacher's classroom activity – while misguided and wrong – “was not intended to question or challenge any student's religious beliefs as reported by some media outlets.”
Following the two-paragraph statement, the district did a 17-item FAQ and after the first question, which asked what the activity entailed – the answer was a copy of that section of the survey that we have for you below — the next question, bizarrely enough, was:
Was the activity graded?
"No the activity was not graded, nor was it ever intended to be graded."
I'm not making this up.We're talking about a teacher possibly denying the existence of God and high on the list, the thing KISD thinks is on everyone's mind, is whether the class activity was for a grade? Maybe that tells us the importance Katy students and their parents place on having high GPAs. KISD, in fact, repeated not-for-a-grade reassurance in answers to questions 10 and 11.
Who prompted the media reported “debate” in class?
This question inspired the following phase that was used with almost no variation in answers to questions 10, 12 and 15 (cut and paste working overtime here): The teacher explained “that there are different cultures, religions and views.”
In fact, it wasn't till Question 4 that KISD got to the point:
Did the teacher ask the students to deny God?
“No. The teacher did not ask students at any point to deny God and the statements of the eleven (11) students interviewed, including the student cited by the media, further corroborate that.”
That last part led to another can of worms because it seems some parents weren't happy at all with the district questioning their kids about what happened in the class without first telling the parents what they were going to do. Which brings us to question 13:
Were students interviewed by school personnel without their parents being notified?
“There is no requirement that parents be notified or present when students are being questioned by school officials concerning school-related behaviors or concerns.”
SOP in all public schools in Texas.
Question 14 approached the matter from another angle:
Did the teacher tell her 7th grade students that God is a myth?
“No. According to the teacher and other students interviewed, the teacher did not use the word myth.”
The FAQ also says that teacher and students interviewed by the district verified that there weren't any debates or arguments in the seventh grade class. And importantly: “No student cried while in the classroom as a result of this activity.”
Look, we're the first to admit that any discussion about whether God is fact or opinion probably didn't need to take place in a seventh grade public school classroom and could probably wait till college, where such discussions are tediously commonplace, or at least until an upper-level AP philosophy high school class so no one would get a case of the vapors.
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And it does show a certain lack of common sense (survival skills?) that any teacher, whether Christian or not — and the district was quick to point out this one is — didn't have any better sense than to step in the middle of religion in an area of the state not generally known for being intensely open-minded about religion.
But is it really that bad, that awful a question? So awful that it couldn't even be asked?
According to KISD, “the teacher is distraught” and took a personal day off from school Wednesday. KISD wants everyone to know “that the religious beliefs of all students and staff are welcomed and valued at West Memorial Junior High.”
But let's not talk about it, shall we?