Deandre Poole, 'step on Jesus' controversy update: FAU professor gives his side of the story

Speaks to the Palm Beach Post

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.-- The Palm Beach Post sat down with Florida Atlantic University Professor Deandre Poole for an interview, one of the first times he has spoken to media since the story broke of his controversial classroom assignment.

Poole wore a dark suit and glasses, sitting at a long conference table in the Palm Beach Post building. 

"This entire experience has changed my life," he said.

To his left, Susan Reilly, a tenured professor in the same department, who says she supports him. 

"I don't want to be known as the Jesus stomp professor," he said.

Poole told the journalists Wednesday that the church has been very influential in his life.  He says he has attended Baptist and Pentacostal churches locally.

In his Florida Atlantic University class, Poole reportedly followed an exercise in a book.  He says he spelled the name "Jesus," asking students to write the letters on a piece of paper.  He then asked the students to put the paper on the floor, then step on it.  There were 24 students in the class, according to the teacher.  The book was on the syllabus, which had been approved by FAU, he said.

The purpose of the exercise was to emphasize how context is important to communication, and encourage students to engage in discussion.

"Yes, it is sensitive, but the point to drive home to the class is that it is sensitive," he said.

Students would have received credit even if they did not complete the exercise, and few of the students stepped on the papers, according to the professor. 

One student, a junior named Ryan Rotela, said he refused to participate. 

According to Poole, the atmosphere changed in the classroom when Rotela refused and he ended the three-hour class an hour early.  Poole says he had used this lesson once before and had a thoughtful response.  To his knowledge, the exercise had never been used by any other professor at FAU.

After dismissal, Poole says, Rotela approached him, punching his fist into an open hand, raising his voice, Poole demonstrated what he recalled the student doing and saying.  "I want to tell you, I want to hit you.  Don't you ever do that again.  Do you hear me?" Poole explained, saying he felt extremely uncomfortable.

Poole says it was the first time he had ever called security.

While the university said Rotela was never punished for his refusal, the student's lawyer said school officials told Rotela he would be suspended. 

FAU has apologized and pulled the curriculum.  School leaders say the student will not be punished. 

"We don't plan to use this exercise again, we apologize to everyone who felt it was too sensitive we recognize that," said Dr. Charles Brown, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at FAU.

Governor Rick Scott has asked state university system Chancellor Frank Brogan to look into the incident. 

"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 judgment," Scott stated in a letter to Brogan. "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."

Poole claims he would have liked to have finish the semester with his class, with security.  He would not have felt comfortable with the student back in class.  Poole has been placed on paid administrative leave.

"This experience has taken an emotional and mental toll on me," Poole said.

Rotela is back in class with a different instructor. He claimed "victory" on his Facebook page once the university decided he wouldn't be punished.

The professor says he is getting hate mail from people who have heard about the story.  One, he said, read, "You might find yourself hanging from a tree." 

Poole, who previously only spoke to, says has not yet been told if his contract will be renewed.  He wants to continue teaching at FAU, and claims he is scheduled to teach one public speaking class this summer. 

The professor says he would have engaged other students in discussion if asked to do the exercise.

"I would write it, but I would not step on it.  Because the name Jesus has symbolic value.  He is my Lord and my Savior," he said.

The president of the United Faculty of Florida's FAU Chapter, Chris Robe, says the University Senate will debate the issue on April 19th.  He says faculty members do not see cause for Poole to be removed from the classroom. 

"You need one loud student to object to what you're doing, and then what, you get thrown out?" Robe said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida released this statement:

"The FAU professor, using a curriculum that has been in use for years, appears to have been leading the students in a lesson on the power of symbols – a power which is demonstrated by the outsize response to the lesson.

"There are conflicting accounts of what exactly happened in the classroom the day of the lesson and why the student was disciplined. And while no student should ever be forced to engage in activity that violates their religious beliefs, many insist that the purpose of the lesson was to give people the opportunity to object and refuse.

"Regardless of what exactly transpired between the professor and the student during and after class, what is clear is that the university seems to be caving to political pressure rather than protecting the integrity of the classroom from outside forces. The university should not be letting politicians - including Governor Scott - intimidate or interfere with what happens in the classroom."

After the school's senate meets, Robe expects the teachers ask the university president to speak out on academic freedom.

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