Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award: Harassed for questioning of authority – By Cidney Fisk

This special scholarship of $5,000 is generously endowed by longtime FFRF members and supporters Richard and Beverly Hermsen.

By Cidney Fisk

During my junior year of high school, I protested an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would give fetuses personhood status. I wore a costume urging voters to vote “no” on the amendment. I was asked to take the costume off because of my student government teacher, who claims, “God made babies, and abortion is murder.”

Later in that year, I posted on Instagram that I “don’t particularly like attending Delta High School.” After this was noticed by staff members, I was called into the counseling office where two faculty members waited for me. They had asked me to remove my post. They told me my behavior was “negative” and if it continued they “would hate to see me lose leadership positions and letters of recommendation.” This was a threat.

They also told me I could not fight every battle, citing my objections to school policy. After a while, I felt as though other secular students probably felt the same way and deserved a safe space. I sought to start a secular student alliance, but was denied a staff facilitator.

In October of my senior year, I found out through a staff member that we would be forced to watch a presentation on sexual education that was entitled the “W.A.I.T. Training Program.” I researched the program and read reviews on it and found it was a faith-based program. I questioned the staff about the program. They promised it would be perfectly legal and fine.

My parents, a friend and I attended a presentation by Shelly Donahue, a traveling speaker of faith-based abstinence-only information. While there, she attributed the downfall of America and the increase of sex to Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration. Religion was cited several times throughout the presentation.

Donahue then appeared for an assembly at Delta High School on Oct. 18, 2015. I had organized a silent protest in which my friends and I wore shirts with anti-abstinence-only sex-ed slogans.

In Donahue’s slideshow that accompanied the presentation, a crucifix appeared on every slide. In her presentation, she noted that “Having sex before marriage brings you further from God.”

In both my junior and senior years, I was a member of student government classes. I was awarded A’s in both semesters in class during my junior year, as well as in the first semester of my senior year.

But when college application and scholarship deadlines rolled around, my application for the Boettcher full-ride scholarship was flagged by a member of the foundation. I also had met all the qualifications for the Daniels full-ride scholarship. I was denied both scholarships and didn’t make it to semifinals or finals in the application process.

When I applied to college, the guidance counselor refused to send in my transcripts to the places I applied. I had submitted my request far before the deadline. Three days before it was due, my transcripts still were not in. After several confrontations by my parents with the counselor, my transcripts barely made it to my chosen schools on time.

Another instance where I felt harassed was when Delta Middle School was handing out Gideon bibles, and allowing students to hassle others for not accepting the bibles. This prompted the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers and the Satanic Temple to try to distribute their literature in Delta Public Schools. When the school board decided that it had to let them do so, the Grand Junction Sentinel interviewed me about what I had thought about the issue. I came out publicly as an atheist in this article.

The day before and of the distribution, death threats against me and any other atheists were posted on message boards on Facebook. Most of the threats were made by fellow students. My dad filed a police report and notified the administration. Neither of them did anything about it.

The day after the article was published and the distribution occurred was a Saturday and the first day of spring break. In the days prior, I had checked my grades and all was fine. But that Saturday, my grade in Student Council/government went from a 98 to a 69.

The teacher had input three months’ worth of F’s. I had no idea what caused this dramatic drop. My parents and I emailed the teacher who had dropped my grade. When I returned to school, the teacher and my principal called me into a meeting in which they had tried to explain the decline of my grade. They mentioned the newspaper article four times and assured me it was not about that. I think that’s suspicious. In the end, they noted my “questioning of authority,” particularly religious authority, as the reason for my decline in grades. They told me I was being highly disrespectful. They told me that if I wanted my grades to go up, I would “shut up” and “fake it ’til I make it.”

After graduation, I told my story to some blogs and media outlets and once again became a target of harassment.

Students from Delta High School and members of the community said horrible things about me on social media, urging me to be exiled, calling me an attention whore and a liar, and criticizing my parents for raising me. There was even a planned protest to cut truck pipes and blow exhaust on me and my family during my scholarship presentation organized by Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers.

But in the end, I found solace in the secular community. My move to Denver has been life-changing. I no longer feel like a criminal for not believing in a god.

“I am a 2016 Delta High School graduate. I’m a freshman at the University of Denver, where I am studying political science and public policy. I’ll be turning 20 this year. I enjoy traveling with my college debate team in order to participate in British parliamentary style debate. So far, I’ve made it to Colorado Springs, San Diego and Tacoma. I’m excited to be engaged in both secular and political communities, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation