Where to draw the line between reality and respect for cultural beliefs

Maybe this would be a good place to draw that line: Was High School Girl Possessed In Class?

Students at a Mississippi high school said a fellow student spoke in tongues and made grave predictions for her classmates for three days.

Some of those predictions included when students would die.

Sparks and his classmates said they think an evil spirit possessed the girl. They were so convinced that Sparks and his friends brought Bibles to school and had a devotional.

“Some believe, some don’t.” Clanton said. “They say it was the devil, but the devil only tells lies. Everything I said was the truth.”

Clanton said she admits she spoke in tongues and made predictions for her classmates. But she said it was God speaking through her, not the devil.

Checking my calendar I see that, yup, it is 2009. I realize there is a chance this is purely attention-seeking on the part of both the “possessed” and the victims. The TV station mainly talked with the students who had been the ones to reach out to the media. But the “possessed’s” mom seemed to be going right along with this.

Kylie Sturgess on PodBlack Cat has launched a good conversation about how a teacher should approach the subject of skepticism vs. cultural respect in the classroom. Is it OK to base a critical thinking-type lesson on debunking horoscopes, ouija boards or ghosts? Or would such subjects spark too much controversy and thus be off limits? But is marking such lessons as off limits irresponsible and thus promoting the exact opposite of critical thinking, which then perpetuates the goofy “possessed” junk?

I think Kylie nails it on the head when she says: “Talking to counselors, deputy principals and certainly my Head of Department – and being prepared to compromise if need be for what is still more about a method – rather than a particular topic.”

So, how do you handle a situation where a student is acting, in all seriousness, “possessed”? And how do you talk to the other kids who are convinced something is going on and are freaked out about it?

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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16 Responses to Where to draw the line between reality and respect for cultural beliefs

  1. PatrickHenry says:

    Doesn’t the school board have an exorcist on the staff?

  2. PDC says:

    A student who is disrupting the classroom environment by violating behavior norms should be removed from the classroom. This is not a religious issue. I don’t know why the teacher tolerated this.

  3. Green Earth says:

    Drugs, attention seeking, bad home life, or just plain old mental illness (or maybe some combination). This is not Salem, Mass at the end of the 1600s, I agree with PDC- it’s simple, anyone disrupting class instruction should be removed from class.

  4. grafixer says:

    To protect the student, the teacher and the school… it seems that an ambulance should have been called to take the child to a hospital. I would think that a hospital would check to see that there is not a health issue causing the behavior – like a tumor or chemical imbalance. And, if there is no medical explanation, they would certainly refer the child to a psychologist.
    Anytthing less than medical emergency action could be considered negligence on the part of the school.
    Whatever the “cause” – god, devil or medical condition – documentation of this needs to be on the child’s records.

  5. S.Scott says:

    Ahhhh.. Brandon. You put that link there just to make my day – didn’t you?

  6. Steve says:

    You send the student to the Principal’s office for being disruptive.

  7. Jonathan Smith says:

    From Kim Kendal

    Let me tell you guys,objections to evolution has nothing to do with religion,no- sir-ree-Bob, it’s about teaching the weaknesses,and academic freedom, fair play and errrrrr teach both sides and let god errrrr, I mean the bible, errrrr sorry sorry,the kids decide whats true.
    Religious reasons oh no nothing to do with religion. Amen brother,sorry sorry,I mean that’s all I have to say.

  8. Brandon Haught says:

    S.Scott … Yup, just for you. I’ve been waiting for the right time to unleash it, and here it is!

  9. Podblack says:

    Hello! A bit of discussion, that’s very cool! Thanks for the link to my blog.

    PDC: ‘I don’t know why the teacher tolerated this.’ Because you sometimes have to second-guess yourself. What if this was a manifestation of mental illness? Telling someone to ‘get over themselves and stop playing the fool’ and dismissing it outright could have some very nasty ramifications later on. Accountability means that you do have to keep tabs on what’s going on and report it, to not only help the student and their peers, but yourself and the school community.

    Sure, it could be just attention-seeking. But there’s more than one child who has been influenced by this behaviour. If their peers were distressed enough (to start bringing bibles to school and so forth) then clearly it can’t be dismissed as just nonsense and not worth any more time. The stakeholders in the situation are much broader than just one child is a problem – whatever that problem may actually be.

  10. PDC says:

    Podblack: I think I agree with everything you’re saying – I am not a high school teacher, so I’m not equipped to handle this particular situation. Grafixer pointed out some issues that might need to be addressed in this situation. My primary point is that this student is disruptive and should be treated like every other disruptive student. A disruptive student should not be treated differently because of the student’s own perception or the perception of others in the room that the student may be having a religious/spiritual experience. This is a behavior issue, not a religious issue.

  11. S.Scott says:

    “S.Scott … Yup, just for you. I’ve been waiting for the right time to unleash it, and here it is!
    Gee, thanks!

  12. Podblack says:

    PDC – cool! 🙂 As for the other – Yes, they are a ‘disruptive student’, sure. Yet even if it was indeed religious/spiritual – it could also be behavioral/due to abuse; epilepsy/neurological disorder; acting out/ attention seeking, amongst many, many things… you’re not going to know that easily what it is out of a spectrum of things it could be. A teacher isn’t a psychologist and a school community isn’t a hospital!

    I would, however, argue that although we might not see it as a ‘religious issue’, there may very well be people in the community who will see it that way. Such as parents or students who are insulted that someone is purportedly making fun of their religion for bullying purposes or believe it was really possession – even if the child was acting that way for other reasons, as suggested above. So you can’t say that ‘perceptions of others don’t count’.

    How you talk about dealing with the situation will matter to them – which could be part of the problem when parents weren’t contacted in this case. After all – one day this child might return to the classroom. And having a backlash will not help. :/ Where does ‘religious issue’ end and ‘social issue’ start?

  13. PatrickHenry says:

    Lots of good comments here. Episodes like this illustrate why an institution like a school (or any other) should maintain some kind of operations handbook as an ongoing project. This “possession” situation could, after responsible policy-makers discuss it, be added to a section on discipline (or whatever). Teachers should get a copy of the handbook, and supplementary pages as available, so that they’ll know how to behave, and their behavior will be justifiable.

  14. zygosporangia says:

    It sounds like attention seeking to me. No doubt, the story was refined once the news got involved.

    I would have sent her to the principal for disrupting the class.

  15. Ivory girl says:

    If you think thats a problem how about this deal?


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