A frustrated father who says a fifth-grade teacher told his son he can't read his Bible in her classroom isn't backing down, claiming that the child's First Amendment rights were violated and demanding an official apology from the school district.
Paul Rubeo told TheBlaze this week that Giovanni, his 12-year-old son, had been asked by his teacher to stop reading his Bible during a free reading period on April 8 at Park Lakes Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. One month later the story is making national headlines.
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"She said we're going to have 90 minutes of free reading time. In my head I'm like, 'Yes, I get to read my Bible," Giovanni told TheBlaze. "She asked me, 'What book is that?' I was a little nervous and scared and she said to put it on the desk. She didn't ask me -- she told me put it on my desk."
Giovanni said he refused to comply and the teacher reportedly called him "defiant," then told him to dial his father's phone number, which he did. And that's when the teacher, who identified herself as Mrs. S. Thomas, subsequently left a voice mail for Paul Rubeo.
"I noticed that he has a book -- a religious book -- in the classroom," she can be heard on a recording released by the family. "He’s not permitted to read those books in my classroom."
The teacher went on to say that Giovanni had told her that his father had instructed him not to put the book away; the teacher said she wanted to clarify the rules. Paul Rubeo confirmed that he did tell his son not to back down and that the teacher had previously asked the child to stop reading the religious text on two separate occasions.
"I need to have some understanding on direction to him about the book he's reading as opposed to the curriculum for public school," Thomas continued in the message (listen here).
Paul Rubeo told TheBlaze that he heard the teacher's message a few hours after she left it and felt "numb," saying that he listened to it four or five times to be sure he was hearing Thomas correctly.
Rather than respond to the teacher, the frustrated father waited for Giovanni to come home to hear his son's side of the story. Then, he took action.
"I called the superintendent's office that day. I spoke to an assistant and the assistant told me I needed to deal with the principal, so I called and left a message on the principal's voice mail," he said. "It was late in the afternoon [around] 4 o'clock."
It wasn't until the next day when the principal was reached; she told him she would investigate. Then, on April 10, apparently unsatisfied and with a lack of response, Paul Rubeo wrote a letter to Thomas, which his son delivered. At that point, the father said his son was sent with the note to the principal's office.
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at the conservative Liberty Institute, told TheBlaze that the real question that needs to be answered is whether Mrs. Thomas did anything wrong -- or illegal -- on April 8.
"Having a Bible on the campus is not a problem. Reading the Bible so long as it doesn't disrupt school time wouldn't be a problem," Dys said. "Did she or did she not do something wrong in how she tried to remove the book?"
Thomas' statement that Giovanni is "not permitted to read those books in my classroom" in reference to the religious book in question has caused concern.
But some have questioned whether the incident truly happened during a free reading period, a time during which children are free to read what they wish -- or whether the student should have been reading school-mandated curriculum.
Giovanni, Paul Rubeo and Dys maintained that it was, indeed, a free-reading period.
The district initially countered that the incident happened during instructional time and that the student was supposed to be reading an assigned book -- not the Bible. Regardless, officials were unable to explain why the teacher said that religious books were not welcome.
Paul Rubeo, who said many in the community have been supportive, is demanding that the school officially apologize to his son.
"I want to know who is responsible. Who is going to stand up and take responsibility ... that voicemail speaks for itself," he said. "Who is taking responsibility for this? It's clear that she said a religious book is not allowed in her classroom."
Rubeo continued, "I want an apology. I want someone to accept responsibility for that ... 'We're sorry the teacher violated your son's rights'. ... I want to teach my son sometimes you have to take a stand."
Giovani said that he's hoping the school board will educate his teachers about students' rights.
"I would tell the school board to send out the message to all the teachers about the Constitution and to tell them to remember that kids are allowed to read the Bible," he said.
It seems the child is getting his wish. The school district released a statement this week affirming the rights of students to read the Bible.
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"Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the rights of students to bring personal religious materials to school, including the Bible, and to read these items before school, after school or during any 'free reading' time during the school day," it read.
And during a board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Robert Runcie apologized over the incident, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
"First, let me apologize to the student and his family. This was a situation that should have been handled differently," he said. "It does not represent the values of our school system. Let me be clear. Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the right to bring personal religious material to school, including the Bible."
Runcie also called the incident "isolated" and said that faculty were being informed about proper policies.
But so far the Rubeo family has apparently yet to receive a direct apology -- something Paul Rubeo is clear he wants. TheBlaze will continue to monitor the story.
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