BOCA RATON (CBSMiami) – A South Florida professor placed on administrative leave over an educational firestorm is now defending himself. Deandre Poole, 32, a professor at Florida Atlantic University was embroiled in controversy when a student complained he was unfairly suspended from class for not writing the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper and stomping on it as part of a class exercise.
Poole, who commented publicly for the first time Monday, said he is a "very religious" Christian and the lesson he taught has been used in classrooms nationwide for 30 years, according to the Sun Sentinel.
Poole issued the assignment on Feb. 25th and it has provoked nationwide controversy.
In it, he asked his intercultural communications students to write the name Jesus on a piece of paper, place it on the floor and step – not stomp -- on it.
Poole, who said he served as a Sunday school teacher, said he has used the classroom activity before without incident. He said its purpose was to show the power of symbols, not to disrespect Christianity. It's unclear if others at FAU have used the exercise.
"I am very religious," he told the news website Inside Higher Ed. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It's how I identify myself as a Christian."
While student Ryan Rotela voiced strong objection to the exercise and notified the media, several other students in the class said the incident has been misconstrued and blown out of proportion.
Phillip Marquis, 22, of Weston, said some in the class of about 20 students stepped on the paper and others didn't. No one was forced to act and no grades suffered, he told the Sentinel.
The assignment came from a classroom exercise in the instructor's guide of the textbook written by Jim Neuliep, a professor of communication and media studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.
Neuliep told Inside Higher Ed he has done the exercise for 30 years in his classroom without any complaints. In Neuliep's class hardly anyone steps on the paper, and that this is in fact the point of the lesson. Students discuss "how important Jesus is to them, and they defend why they won't step on it. It reaffirms their faith," he said.
As to why the exercise doesn't call on students to write "Mohammed" or some other figure, he said it's designed for the United States, where majority of students wouldn't have the reaction that they do Jesus.
Poole told the website he didn't expect students to step on the paper.
"Because of this activity, I have been labeled anti-Christian and insensitive," Poole said in a statement. "For doing my job, I have been lied on, I have received hundreds of hate emails, I have been demonized by some in the press, and I have received death threats, all for doing my job."
The class assignment prompted an apology to Rotela and the community from the university, a call by Gov. Rick Scott for a State University System investigation and placement of Poole on paid leave, following reported death threats.
"We can have a healthy debate about the merits of this assignment, but attacks on my character and threats of bodily harm have no place in this dialogue," Poole said.
FAU officials could not be reached Monday.
Poole is also is an adjunct professor at Broward College, where he co-teaches a speech communication class with another instructor. Poole will be handling his duties online and remotely due to safety concerns, Broward College spokeswoman Aileen Izquierdo said.
for more features.