The principal of a public high school in Louisiana who cited religion as justification for punishing a student after a video of her dancing circulated on social media has apologized and asked for a leave for the rest of the school year.
The principal of Walker High School, Jason St. Pierre, prompted an outcry after he stripped Kaylee Timonet, 17, of her position as president of the school’s student government association and rescinded a scholarship endorsement. The punishment was in response to a video of her dancing behind another student at an off-campus party after Homecoming.
Ms. Timonet said in a video interview on the website Unfiltered with Kiran that she was dancing behind a friend, “hyping her up.”
She said that the principal, Mr. St. Pierre, and the assistant principal called her into their office on Tuesday and told her that she was stripped of her student government post. She said she “started crying hysterically.”
In the same video interview, Ms. Timonet said the school administrators told her that she should be ashamed of herself as well as concerned for her afterlife, because she “wasn’t following God’s ideals, which made me cry even more.”
Public outrage followed, and online critics made comparisons to “Footloose,” a fictional movie about a conservative small town where dancing is illegal. Others posted under the hashtag “let the girl dance.”
In his apology, Mr. St. Pierre said this week that members of the student government were held to a high standard of behavior. “While I stand by that premise, I do believe that standard deserves the input of not just myself and top administrators, but also those student leaders,” Mr. St. Pierre added in a statement. “I hope to create a path moving forward where we can work together to create clear expectations for all.”
Local news media has reported that since the apology was posted on the school’s website and app, Mr. St. Pierre requested a leave for the rest of the school year. Bruce Chaffin, the assistant superintendent of schools for the school district, refused to comment on Thursday. Multiple members of the Livingston Parish School District, of which Walker High School is part, didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Mr. St. Pierre said he would reinstate Ms. Timonet as the student government president and restore his endorsement needed for a Student Government Association scholarship application for Ms. Timonet.
Ms. Timonet and her mother said in their taped videos that the deadline to apply for the scholarship had passed. Ms. Timonet’s mother, Rachel, said in a self-taped video that she was present at the party where the dancing occurred and that “there was nothing inappropriate at all to me.”
“There are two things I have always taught my kids not to talk about: one is politics and one is religion,” she said in a self-taped video also posted on Unfiltered with Kiran. Ms. Timonet and her mother were not immediately available for comment.
In his apology, Mr. St. Pierre said that he had “the best intentions” by invoking religion. “I do understand it is not my responsibility to determine what students’ or others’ religious beliefs may be,” he said.
Jill Heinrich, a professor of education at Cornell College in Iowa, said that teachers and principals at public schools function as an arm of the state. With that in mind, religion mostly has no place in a public school, she said, unless it’s being studied in a secular way.
“You can talk about religious events in history class,” Ms. Heinrich said, but added that “there can be absolutely no advocacy.”