Broward schools chief apologizes for Bible incident

Giovanni and Paul Rubeo stand outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. The Rubeos say that Gio's civil rights were violated when a teacher took away his Bible. (Dan Sweeney/SunSentinel)

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie apologized Tuesday for an incident in which a 12-year-old was told he couldn't read the Bible.

Gio Rubeo said he was told three times by his teacher at Park Lakes Elementary in Lauderdale Lakes to put away his Bible. His father demanded an apology, saying the teacher had violated his civil rights.

"First, let me apologize to the student and his family. This was a situation that should have been handled differently," Runcie said at Tuesday's School Board meeting. "It does not represent the values of our school system. Let me be clear. Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the right to bring personal religious material to school, including the Bible."

He said his administration has reached out to the faculty at the school to ensure they are familiar with district policies and state and federal laws.


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Parents at the school received robo-calls about the incident Monday, and Runcie said he has instructed principals to have a conversation with faculty about district policies.

"From the Supreme Court to the federal Department of Education, the laws are clear respecting the rights of our students to be able to bring religious materials to school and to have access to those materials during free reading time, lunch and non-instructional time," he said.

Runcie called it "an insolated incident."

Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that defends religious freedom, said it would comment when it formally receives an apology letter from the school district.

"When I get a letter that says that, we'll have a comment for sure," he said. "Since they said that at a public meeting, I'm assuming they're putting something together now. We just need it in writing."

District officials are reviewing the teacher's actions to determine if any discipline is warranted against the teacher, Swornia Thomas, district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said.

The Broward County School district initially maintained Gio read his Bible when he was supposed to be doing schoolwork.

But it couldn't explain why Thomas left a voicemail to Gio's father in which she stated, "I noticed that he has a book — a religious book — in the classroom. He's not permitted to read those books in my classroom."

Runcie said he doesn’t know if Gio was reading the Bible during a free reading period or during an accelerated reading class with specific assigned books. Still, he said schools need to be flexible about what’s acceptable reading.

Gio said he needed to take a stand on his right to read the Bible, despite being singled out by a teacher in front of the whole classroom.

"I was pretty embarrassed, but not as embarrassed as the first couple times it happened," Rubeo said at a press conference Monday, at which he appeared with his father, Paul, and Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that defends religious freedom.

The United States Supreme Court has stated unequivocally that schools must be strictly neutral in their treatment of religion, and the Department of Education's website specifically reads, "Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures … during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities."

"Giovanni has every right to read his Bible during these free reading times, just like every other student does, and that needs to be reinforced in Broward County and throughout the country," Dys said.

Staff writer Dan Sweeney contributed to this report.

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