Hamilton County Schools determines instructor didn't intend to teach 'how to torture a Jew'

Hamilton County Schools on Friday released results of a review after a parent complained on Facebook about a Bible history teacher instructing her daughter's class about "how to torture a Jew."

The parent, Juniper Russo, said earlier this month that the East Hamilton Middle School teacher had informed students that the Hebrew word for God is not to be spoken, and that to do so would be offensive to Jews.

According to the school district, the teacher taught the children "to hear or say that word would be a torturous or difficult experience" for Jews.

But, the statement went on, "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 district said in its statement. "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 district said that other concerns raised by Russo - such as proselytizing in a classroom that is supposed to teach about the Bible as literature - will be further investigated.

"A review committee is being formed by the district's partner to evaluate course content and reference materials," the statement said.

The teacher released a statement through her attorney, Caldwell Huckabay, citing her professional experience and training from the school system and from Emory University seminary "in the academic presentation of the Hebrew Bible as a historical text" and states she "strongly supports the equal and fair treatment for people of all religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds."

"I am personally offended by the statements that have been attributed to me, and I unequivocally deny making them," the teacher's statement said. "I did not utter antisemitic remarks nor refuse a parent/teacher meeting. It is a shame that a misinterpretation of what I actually said has caused such far-reaching destruction to my students, the Jewish community worldwide, and me. I am grateful that the investigation of this matter by the Hamilton County School System has completely exonerated me. It is my hope that this statement will clear up confusion and false accusations."

Huckabay said the teacher has offered to meet with Russo, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga and the Anti-Defamation League "in an effort to promote an open and productive dialogue."

"My client has been unjustly smeared online and in the media for allegedly saying something that she absolutely did not say, nor would she ever," the statement says. "This is what happens when people rush to judgment without knowing the facts. Fortunately, the Hamilton County School System took its time, conducted a thorough investigation of this matter and arrived at the correct conclusion that my client said nothing of the sort."

Bible in the Schools classes are taught in 29 Hamilton County public schools, according to the Bible in the Schools website. The classes are billed as "non-sectarian," and those guiding the class are "required to teach from a viewpoint-neutral perspective and adhere to a court-approved curriculum."

The nonprofit reimburses the school district each year for operating the program. For the 2020-21 academic year, the program gifted the school system $1.8 million.

Russo told the Times Free Press she was dissatisfied with the statements from the district and the teacher, saying that her daughter is being called a liar.

"I believe them that the teacher was not intentionally trying to teach them how to torture Jews," Russo said. "But I have no doubt she heard what she heard."

She said school officials have told her something along the lines of "we're sorry that your daughter was uncomfortable" but that no kind of apology has been forthcoming from the teacher. She said the teacher has never agreed to meet, and a simple acknowledgment that she chose her words poorly could have resolved the matter much earlier.

Russo's complaints about the curriculum included that the Book of Genesis was taught as the factual story of how the universe was formed and the correct answer to a test question, "It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jewish" was true.

She said the school district's Friday statement focused on the one complaint that she does not have documented - about the torture comment.

"All this stuff is substantiated," Russo said. "I've got her curriculum. It makes me angry that she would throw my daughter under the bus like this."

Russo said her daughter is taking physical education as an elective now instead of the Bible class, and she's not sure what the family's next steps will be.

"I'm just frustrated and sad right now," she said.

Contact Ricky Young at ryoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6260. Follow him on Twitter @RickyWhy.