POMPANO BEACH — The Broward County School District is investigating allegations that a student was recruited by Christian teachers to chant Bible verses during a classroom ritual intended to save the soul of an atheist teacher.
The complaint focuses on Djuna Robinson, Leslie Rainer and Schandra K. Thomkinsel Rodriguez-Conti.
“Ms. Robinson and Ms. Rainer conducted a form of religious ritual in Ms. Rodriguez’s class as they chanted Bible verses and held up what they called ‘anointing oil’ to save Ms. Rodriguez. They enlisted a student who engaged in the religious activity, the student also chanted verses of the Bible,” the complaint alleges.
The accusations are contained in complaints filed by an atheist teacher who also alleged that her Christian colleagues tried to douse her with anointed oil during the ceremony.
“As Ms. Rodriguez offered an academic, economic rationale to the student’s question, ‘Why is Haiti so poor,’ Ms. Rainer offers that Haiti is poor because of the pact made with the Devil, while Ms. Robinson attempted to douse me with anointing oil,” reads an April 19, 2010, complaint filed with Broward Schools officials by reading teacher Rodriguez-Conti.
The events allegedly took place at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach.
Anointed oil, or holy water, is used by some Christian denominations to bring about blessings, get of rid of evil spirits and to build faith. The liquid is rubbed, sprinkled or otherwise applied to the body or directly on articles.
Rodriguez-Conti could not be reached for comment about her complaint. She copied Fort Lauderdale attorney Phillip Cullen III, but he did not respond to questions about the complaint or indicate if he was representing her in the matter.
The issue dates back to last April when Leslie Rainer and Djuna Robinson, reading teachers, were removed from their classrooms amid an investigation into whether the two had forcibly sprinkled holy water on Rodriguez-Conti, an avowed atheist.
Officials Not Commenting
The attorney representing the accused teachers called the allegations “total fabrications.”
“It raises questions of credibility and integrity,” said attorney Johnny McCray, who represents Rainer and Robinson. “They told us the complaint did not have anything to do with holy water. Even though we asked for copy of it, they never provided us copies of Ms. Rodriguez’s complaint.”
Local clergy members who came to the defense of the Christian teachers at the time, said during a meeting over the issue last May that school officials denied any holy water allegations were made or involved in their decision to remove the teachers from their classrooms.
“They said that wasn’t the case. Now we have the evidence which shows that was not true,” said the Rev. O’Neal, senior pastor of the Pompano Beach-based Worldwide Christian Center. “I’m concerned because either someone has given them [school officials] false information, or they lied to us. I’m really concerned.”
At the time, School Board Member Ben Williams, in whose district the school is located, was adamant that Rodriguez-Conti never made any holy water allegations. He attributed it to rumor and “media hype.” Citing the confidential nature of the investigations, school officials declined to comment on the details of the complaint.
A review of those complaints, however, indicates otherwise. Williams did not respond to calls or messages left seeking comment.
The allegations are contained in two complaints filed by Rodriguez-Conti in April and another in March, a South Florida Times investigation has confirmed. They include a wide-ranging list of offenses allegedly committed by Rainer and Robinson that includes bullying, retaliation and causing emotional harm to students.
The April complaint was made to the school’s principal, Karlton O. Johnson. It consists of seven pages of allegations. State and local education officials were copied, as well as several other individuals and outside organizations. They included School Superintendent Jim Notter and Rebecca S. Markert, an attorney for the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Foundation is a national umbrella organization for groups that advocate a separation between religion and government.
“So far as we know, we haven't heard from the teacher who was bullied since that initial contact, and FFRF only gets involved if we are asked, and usually not if the complainant already has an attorney (which is the case here),” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Foundation said in an email.
“FFRF doesn't represent individuals in employment problems (teacher to teacher); we get involved in state/church violations (principal or school district violating state/church law),” Gaylor said.
The four-page March complaint was filed with Area Superintendent Sharon Airaghi and provided additional details of the alleged incident.
“At the emotional expense of my students these teachers launched this attack on me. These teachers preceded the attack by quoting Bible verses, and condemning me as an Atheist. Ms. Robinson went as far as to run back to her classroom to get a bottle of oil. She presented to the class the bottle of oil as ‘anointing oil. It would serve as a substance to save you.’ ”
The allegations were also reported to the state’s Department of Children and Families and were then investigated by the Broward Sheriff’s Offices’ non-criminal Child Protective Investigations Section on the department’s behalf. That investigation was closed out after CPIS investigators were unable to substantiate the allegations.
The school district’s Office of Professional Standards and Special Investigations Unit is continuing its probe into the allegations.
Rainer and Robinson were returned to their classrooms on the final day of school during the last academic year. When the new school year began, Rainer was also re-instated as head of the school’s reading department. Rodriguez-Conti’s classroom was adjacent to those of the two teachers but she was granted permission to move to another location.
“Right now, we’re waiting for them to close this out to my client’s satisfaction, once and for all,” attorney McCray said. “It really has gone on too long.”
Elgin Jones may be reached at EJones@SFLTimes.com.
Pictured Above: Top, Leslie Rainers and Djuna Robinson. Below: Schandra Tompkinsel Rodriguez-Conti