N.M. high school teacher resigns after student’s story about Jesus giving out marijuana stirs controversy

[Updated: (12/11/2014, 10:15 a.m.) to include a statement from Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Vesely.]

NEW MEXICO — A high school English teacher in New Mexico resigned last week after a parent complained a student in her creative writing class was allowed to write a story about Jesus Christ giving marijuana to sick people, which the parent found offensive.

Katrina Guarascio, who taught for eight years at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, said she resigned on Dec. 3 because she didn’t agree with administrators’ “ultimatum” for her to develop stricter plans and discipline for her classes.

“I started to feel really targeted by the administration,” Guarascio said. “I’m a supporter of student learning, I’m a supporter of freedom of thought and expression. The way the administration handled this is ridiculous.”

Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Vesely said in a statement the district had received complaints about inappropriate language being used in her classroom, adding that Guarascio was offered “the opportunity to change her instructional practices and she chose instead to resign, as is her right.”

In mid-October Guarascio assigned students in the class to rewrite a fairy tale or legend to fit modern times. One student, she said, altered the biblical story of Jesus Christ giving bread and fish to the poor; instead, Jesus gave marijuana to sick people.

When the students shared their stories with their classmates on Oct. 15, a student was offended and told their parents, Guarascio said.

The school’s principal, Scott Affentranger, placed Guarascio on paid administrative leave for three weeks during the school district’s investigation into the issue, Guarascio said. Affentranger did not respond to a telephone call requesting comment.

After she returned from leave, Guarascio said she met with Affentranger and vice principal Renee Saucedo after she returned from leave to discuss two school policy violations they found during her leave. Guarascio said they told her school policy prohibited her from requiring students to share their stories with the class. Additionally, school policy prohibited her from being friends with former students on Facebook.

Affentranger and Saucedo met with Guarascio again on Nov. 25 and told her to create stricter plans for classes or resign from the school, Guarascio said.

Guarascio said there should have been a meeting with the parents and student instead of jumping to administrative leave, adding that administrators didn’t visit her classroom to see see how she taught.

Guarascio started a poetry group at the high school and is the managing editor and publisher of Swimming with Elephants Publications, a nonprofit that publishes work by local poets and authors. She said she is looking for teaching jobs in charter schools and will continue at Swimming with Elephants.

“I built a community of writers,” she said. “I hope that because of this situation everything I’ve worked for doesn’t just disappear.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.