Tallahassee, Florida — Following reports that a Florida Atlantic University student had been suspended for refusing to stomp on a piece of paper bearing the name of Jesus, Florida Governor Rick Scott is demanding a formal investigation into the matter.
As previously reported, Ryan Rotela, a Mormon, recently told reporters that he was punished by school officials for not participating in the assignment in his intercultural communications class. The activity was part of a suggested exercise found in the instructor’s manual accompanying the classroom textbook.
“This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings,” the manual states. “Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment.”
“After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper,” it continues. “Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”
However, Rotela said that he was suspended for refusing to stomp on the paper, after his teacher, Deandre Poole, the vice-chairman of the Palm Beach Democratic Party, had his class perform the exercise.
“He had us all stand up and he said ‘Stomp on it,’” Rotela explained. “I picked up the paper from the floor and put it right back on the table. I’m not going to be sitting in a class having my religious rights desecrated.”
“Anytime you stomp on something it shows that you believe that something has no value,” he said. “So, if you were to stomp on the word Jesus, it says that the word has no value.”
Initially, after many became outraged both over the classroom assignment and Rotela’s suspension, school officials defended the teacher because he was simply following the instructor’s manual. However, on Friday, the university released an apology over the matter.
“We sincerely apologize for any offense this has caused,” officials representing Florida Atlantic University wrote. “Florida Atlantic University respects all religions and welcomes people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs.”
However, the school denied that students were required to stomp on the paper.
“Contrary to some media reports, no students were forced to take part in the exercise,” it stated. “[T]he instructor told all of the students in the class that they could choose whether or not to participate.”
It also asserted that Rotela was not punished for his refusal to stomp on the name of Jesus.
“While we do not comment on personnel matters, and while student privacy laws prevent us from commenting on any specific student at the University, we can confirm that no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the University as a result of any activity that took place during this class,” the statement read.
However, Florida Governor Rick Scott has now taken up an interest in the matter. He sent a letter on Tuesday to State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan and demanded a full investigation.
“I am deeply disappointed in the actions of Florida Altantic University (FAU) faculty that raises significant questions over students rights and the lessons being taught in our classrooms,” he wrote. “I am requesting a report of the incident, how it was handled and a statement of the university’s policies to ensure this type of ‘lesson’ will not occur again.”
“Whether the student was reprimanded or whether an apology was given is in many ways inconsequential to the larger issue of a professor’s poor judgement,” he continued. “The professor’s lesson was offensive, and even intolerant, to Christians and those of all faiths who deserve to be respected as Americans entitled to religious freedom.”
According to the Tampa Bay Times, a spokesperson for the State University System said that they need more time to respond to the governor’s correspondence.
“The State University System prides itself not only on its commitment to academic freedom, but at the same time, its awesome responsibility to the people it serves,” wrote spokeswoman Kim Wilmath. “We are gratified to know that FAU has apologized for any offense the exercise has caused and has pledged never to use this exercise again. Clearly, there were things the university could have done differently by its own acknowledgement.”