Florida Atlantic University Professor Deandre Poole became the focus of a firestorm of criticism after a 30-year-old in-class symbolism exercise, now dubbed the ‘stomp on Jesus’ exercise, was met with fierce resistance from one of his students.
In February, Poole chose to run a textbook exercise to teach the students in his Intercultural Communication class about the power of symbolism. The exercise involved the students writing the letters J-E-S-U-S on a piece of paper, then putting the paper on the floor. Poole then instructed the students to step on the paper.
“Only about two students in the class actually did it,” said Poole, who self-identifies as a Christian. The class then engaged in a conversation about why some of the students felt it inappropriate to step on the paper, thus illustrating the importance of the word and how, depending on one’s personal beliefs, the word represented more than simply letters on a piece of paper.
Ryan Rotela, one of the students in the class, loudly refused to participate in the exercise. After Poole ended the class early due to Rotela’s increasing agitation, Rotela stayed behind to talk to the professor. Rotela proceeded to threaten Poole with violence and demand that he never run the exercise again.
Afraid for his safety, Poole reported the incident to campus authorities for further investigation, sparking a heated debate after Rotela brought the story of his investigation to the local news and claimed he was being persecuted for his Christian beliefs. Various local conservative groups pressured FAU to fire Poole, and FAU President Mary Jane Saunders issued an apology (without speaking to Poole firsthand) for the incident, promising to ban the exercise and to not punish Rotela. Local news stations ran reports that Rotela was being unfairly persecuted. Even Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio chimed in, admonishing the university’s teaching policies and further apologizing for the incident against Rotela. Poole was given a leave of absence.
In June, however, the university released a report of its own investigation into the incident, which found that Saunders and the administration should not have bowed to political pressure in banning the course. Student support of Poole prompted on-campus rallies for the defense of academic freedom, and Poole was reinstated—a move that again sparked loud resistance amongst conservative and Christian activists. Poole now teaches summer courses, and hopes to be teaching in the classroom again next spring, when the university will decide whether or not to renew his contract.