More than 2,000 public school students in Louisiana were told earlier this week that they were going to a college fair. They were then shuttled to what parents later deemed a sexist and transphobic church event which left many of the students traumatized.
On Tuesday, more than 2,100 high school seniors from the East Baton Rouge Parish School System – which serves residents of Louisiana’s capital – were taken to the local Living Faith Christian Center under the promise that they would receive college and career advice, as well as free food.
The Christian nonprofit organization 29:11 Mentoring Program organized the event, calling it “Day of Hope,” the Baton Rouge Advocate reported. The permission slips distributed to students promised “free food”, “fun and games”, “college fair” and “special guest”.
But, ominously, the bottom of the slips also read: “I agree to release and hold harmless 2911 Academy, any and all affiliated organizations, their employees, agents and representatives, including volunteer and other drivers from any and all claims arising from or relating to student’s participation.”
What followed, according to some attendees, was an egregious erasure of the separation of church and state that some once thought was central to the US’s identity.
Organizers separated the students by their assumed gender once they got to the event, according to Brittney Bryant, a teacher and mother of a transgender student who also attended the event.
“Boys were instructed to go outside while the girls were left in the church for ‘girl talk’. My transgender child was discriminated against for walking out. I stayed and listened to the discussion. They talked about rape, forgiving the offender in life, suicide, prayer leadership, and many more dark controversial topics. We had females in the bathrooms crying due to the topics of discussion,” Bryant, who acted as a chaperone for the event, later wrote on Facebook.
“Meanwhile the boys were left outside in the extreme heat. The boys then were escorted in and the girls outside. The boys’ topic was titled ‘real talk’. From the beginning no topics were discussed but began male chauvinistic competition for monetary reward for winners. Then proceeded to compete [in] push ups for more money.”
Bryant added that transgender students who attended the event were bullied by other students. “Other students poured water on top of transgender students heads without any repercussions by any of the adults present,” she said.
One of the students who attended the event, Alexis Budyach, described the event as a “horrible experience” in a statement on Facebook.
“The majority of students chose to attend this field trip on the promise of free food and the opportunity to skip class, however the majority of students were not only disappointed by this event, but traumatized as well,” Budyach said. “I attended this college fair as someone who plans on applying to colleges soon, so I was disappointed once I saw what the event actually was.”
Budyach, who identifies as a genderfluid person, wrote, “I immediately assumed that I would be discriminated against if I went with the boys” when event organizers divided students based on assumed genders. As a result, Budyach “stayed sitting down and kept my mouth shut”. Once all the girls were alone, “the host introduced three women meant to “guide us on our journey in being young queens”.
Budyach went on to explain that one speaker told a story of how a man she secretly met on a dating app tried to kill her by strangling her. Apparently, the point was to discourage keeping secrets, but Budyach said the traumatic circumstances surrounding the event drowned out the message.
“She also emphasized that if she had waited for the man god meant for her, then it wouldn’t [have] happened,” Budyach wrote, saying things took another turn for the worse when a subsequent speaker tried to encourage attendees to be kind to one another by vividly describing her son’s suicide by hanging.
Later, students were led into the church, and the man leading the event’s closing offered a girl $100 if she could force her way past him and to the stage amid a discussion about domestic violence and male control, Bryant wrote in her post.
The school district officials issued their own post on Facebook defending the church event as “amazing”. The post also said: “We were honored to hear directly from students to help them address the issues they face and to provide them with motivation and guidance to empower their choices.”
Teachers, parents and students quickly flooded the post with furious comments.
One parent wrote, “I signed a permission slip for a College and Career Day. What I got was indoctrination and trauma.”
Speaking to WBRZ amid the backlash, the East Baton Rouge parish school board’s vice-president, Dawn Collins, said: “There is a separation of church and state, and it seems like those lines may have been crossed.”