- A Tennessee mom alleges her child’s teacher discussed “how to torture a Jew” in a Bible history class.
- “The idea of my daughter feeling unsafe in class — it’s gut-wrenching,” Juniper Russo told Insider.
- The teacher unequivocally denied the accusation, which led to a district investigation.
Juniper Russo’s 13-year-old daughter spent fewer than two weeks in her “Bible as literature” class at East Hamilton Middle School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before her mom removed her from the course.
Advertised as a nonsectarian approach to the Christian Bible, the “Bible in the Schools” program partners with nearly 30 public middle and high schools in Hamilton County, Tennessee, offering for-credit elective classes about the religious text during normal school hours.
The local Christian organization pays school districts to teach the Biblical history classes in public schools. Last year, the nonprofit donated almost $1.8 million to Hamilton County Schools, according to The Chattanoogan.
Bible in the Schools didn’t respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Though explicitly focused on the Christian Bible, the program bills itself as an unbiased, “viewpoint neutral” study of the book as historical literature — a caveat that allows the program to be legally implemented in taxpayer-funded public schools. The Establishment Clause of the US Constitution prohibits the government from displaying religious symbols or conducting religious practices in government-controlled places, including public schools.
But Russo, who is Jewish, told Insider that her brief experience with the course was anything but impartial.
It started small, she said: Students were asked to share their familiarity with the Christian Bible — an assignment Russo’s daughter feared would out her as one of the school’s non-Christian attendees.
Then Russo’s daughter said her teacher told the class a story about an atheist student who took a Bible class hoping to “prove it wrong” but ended up “realizing it was true” — alleged word choices that struck Russo as proselytism.
Next, her daughter showed her a class quiz, which included a “true or false” question that stated: “There is no reason to study the Bible if you are not a Christian or Jew.” Russo’s daughter marked the question true, but her teacher marked her answer incorrect.
“I was trying not to make a big deal of it at first,” Russo said.
Her daughter has disabilities that precluded her from enrolling in other electives, and despite her own skepticism, Russo said she was trying to keep an open mind.
“I’m not a book-burning, Bible-suppressing kind of person,” she said. “If my child wants to learn about the literature of the Christian Bible, that’s not something I’m opposed to.”
But each day in class became increasingly difficult for the 8th-grader, her mom said
And none more so than February 2, when Russo’s daughter came home from school and told her mother that she no longer felt safe in her Bible history class.
Russo’s daughter said her teacher that day had written the English spelling of the Hebrew name of God on the whiteboard. Jewish people typically don’t speak the transliteration of the name aloud.
“If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud,” Russo’s daughter told her mom the teacher said.
Russo told Insider her initial reaction was shock; she found it difficult to believe a teacher would ever use such language in a classroom. Russo said she grilled her daughter at length, questioning her over and over to make sure she had the exact wording correct. Her daughter didn’t budge, she told Insider.
“She is accurate to an extreme,” Russo said. “And I know my daughter well enough to know that morally, she’s not the kind of kid to lie or make something up.”
Russo jumped into action. On February 3, she filed a complaint with the school district, Hamilton County Schools, and emailed the teacher and administration requesting an urgent meeting with the director of a local Jewish organization.
The next morning, Russo said the principal called her back and informed her that the teacher in question — an employee of the district — was refusing to meet with her, claiming doing so would go against the Bible in the Schools program policy. The teacher has since denied that she refused to meet with the parent.
“As a teacher, it’s your responsibility to meet with parents,” Russo said. “She is an employee of the school system. She’s supposed to be subject to the same regulations.”
“When the teacher refused to meet with me, that’s when I said, ‘I’m not going to help this school system brush this under the rug,'” she said.
Hamilton County Schools launched an investigation into the complaint, a district spokesperson told Insider
District communications officer Steve Doremus said the “rigorous” investigation included interviews with Russo, the teacher, and multiple students in the class.
In a Friday, February 11, statement, the district shared its findings, confirming that the teacher referenced the fact that Jewish people do not say the Hebrew name of God, telling students that to hear or say that word would “be a torturous or difficult experience for them.”
The district’s statement noted that some students who were interviewed in the investigation recalled the discussion while others did not.
“We cannot conclude that the teacher intended to actually instruct her students about how to ‘torture’ a Jewish person, and none of the students interviewed who recalled the comment interpreted it negatively,” the statement continued. “While it does not appear that the statement was intended to cause offense, it did.”
“No student should feel singled out or marginalized in class as a result of a teacher’s instruction,” the statement added.
In her own Friday statement reviewed by Insider, the teacher unequivocally denied the accusations against her, citing her seminary education and academic training in the presentation of the Hebrew Bible as evidence of her support for “the equal and fair treatment for people of all religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds.”
“It is a shame that a misinterpretation of what I actually said has caused such far-reaching destruction to my students, the Jewish community world-wide, and me,” she said.
The teacher also denied refusing a parent-teacher meeting.
“She absolutely refused a meeting and she has still never reached out to us,” Russo told Insider on Friday, February 11.
An attorney for the teacher, Caldwell Huckabay, told local media on February 11 that the teacher was “instructed by her superiors at the time not to do so.”
In his own statement to Insider, Huckabay said his client had been “unjustly smeared online and in the media,” but praised Hamilton County Schools for its “thorough” investigation.
“In an effort to promote an open and productive dialogue, we have offered to meet with the parent involved, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, and the Anti-Defamation League, and we sincerely hope that they will accept our offer,” the attorney said.
Russo said the subsequent community response has been primarily positive
She expressed gratitude for the close-knit Jewish community in Chattanooga, many of whom have reached out to express their support.
Russo said her daughter has reported no problems at school, despite some kids recognizing her as the subject of the conflict. A couple of students even told her she was brave, her mom said.
On Thursday, February 10, Russo met with the administration to discuss the incident and the ensuing investigation.
“I just really wish [the teacher] had agreed to speak with us in the first place,” she said. “It wouldn’t have exploded the way it did.”
But even after hearing the district’s defense, Russo said there are still larger issues surrounding the Bible class curriculum.
A week after her initial Facebook post, Russo wrote an update providing photos and screenshots of classroom material that she says are indicative of the Bible class’s clear tilt toward evangelizing Christianity.
Included in the post is a screenshot of her daughter’s “true or false” test answer that was marked incorrect, as well as screenshots of an animated class video that Russo said shows a forked road with Christianity and God on one side represented by light and color, and a dark, shadowy path on the other.
She also included classroom photos of a figure clutching at a bag of money. Russo said the photos were included in material discussing descendants of Abraham and Sarah, which include Jewish people.
“I’m still very upset about the amount of proselytizing in class,” Russo said. “That’s not a momentary lapse of speech or judgment.”
A ‘district partner’ is now reviewing the Bible course content
In its Friday, February, 11, statement, Hamilton County Schools said its investigation looked into additional complaints from Russo, and as a result, one of its partners is forming a review committee to evaluate the course content and reference materials.
Coverage of the initial incident has led to local and national uproar over the course curriculum.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State called for the end or revision of the Bible course last week, accusing the class of proselytizing and flouting constitutional compliance.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga also issued a statement following the incident, urging the Bible in the Schools organization to “reflect on and assess” their curriculum and presentation in order to ensure their classes “are education, not indoctrination.”
And a group of Chattanooga pastors issued a biting statement calling for the district to “review” and “reconsider” the Bible in the Schools curriculum.
“Families trust Hamilton County schools to educate their children, not to be placed in classrooms where elements of their faith are ridiculed, leaving them vulnerable to bullying because of their faith,” the statement said.
But of all Russo’s frustrations with the class and its material, she said none is more infuriating than the fact that her daughter felt unsafe at school.
“The idea of my daughter feeling unsafe in class — it’s gut-wrenching,” she said. “I want my child to feel safe in school.”