The East Baton Rouge school system in Louisiana has been accused of tricking hundreds of high school seniors into attending a religious event this week disguised as a college and career fair.
After students arrived at the venue—a church called the Living Faith Christian Center—they say they found something much different than a career fair called the “Day of Hope.” While several colleges did have a presence at the event, students said the emphasis appeared to be on something else entirely.
The pupils were reportedly separated into two groups by gender, forced to register to vote in order to obtain the promoted free food, and listen to speakers share disturbing stories of rape, suicide, and abstinence. One teacher claimed in a Facebook post that some transgender students were bullied by their peers at the event.
Now, a group called “Day of Nope” is seeking to file a lawsuit over the episode and asking attendees to share their experiences via a new website. “This was supposed to be a college fair, but the girls were talked to about abstinence, bullying, and death. And the guys played games,” one student told ABC affiliate WBRZ, which reported on the latest backlash to the event.
“Boys were encouraged to perform macho acts while girls were advised to forgive men who rape and assault them,” says a GoFundMe for this litigation effort, which had raised $75 as of Saturday. “Speakers subjected students to graphic tales and reenactment of suicide, which left some students with past loss due to suicide disturbed and upset with no emotional support to help them. Students were found in the bathroom weeping.”
“In violation of federal law, lunch was conditioned on completing voter registration forms and other election related materials were distributed to students,” adds the fundraising page, titled “Fight Back Against ‘Day of Hope’ Trauma.”
Brittney Bryant, a biology teacher who complained about the event on Facebook, fumed that “boys were instructed to go outside while the girls were left in the church for ‘girl talk.’ My transgender child was discriminated against for walking out.”
“I stayed and listened to the discussion,” Bryant added. “They talked about rape, forgiving the offender in life, suicide, prayer leadership, and many more dark controversial topics. We had females in the bathrooms crying due to the topics of discussion.”
Meanwhile, Bryant claims, the boys’ discussion was called “real talk” and included “male chauvinistic competition for monetary reward,” including doing pushups. “They were hyped up and egged on,” she wrote in her social media post.
A student named Alexis Budyach also took to Facebook to detail what she called “a horrible experience” that started with “rap battles and singing competitions, harmless fun.”
Her mother, Bonnie Kersch, told The Advocate that they had no idea the “college fair” would be held in a church. “She felt she was duped into thinking that she was going for a college and career fair,” Kersh told the Baton Rouge newspaper, “that she was proselytized over and prayed over.”
After the ice-breaker, male students were asked to leave the room, Budyach said in her post. “As a genderfluid person, I don’t identify as either a boy or a girl, so this was a troubling situation for me,” Budyach wrote. “However, due to the nature of this program being in a church, I immediately assumed that I would be discriminated against if I went with the boys, so I stayed sitting down and kept my mouth shut. Then, as the girls were all alone, the host introduced three women meant to ‘guide us on our journey in being young queens.’”
Budyach said the first speaker was a female pastor, who lectured about staying true to oneself and not trying to fit in with the crowd. “One of the examples she used for this was how she had kept her virginity through high school and college,” Budyach wrote. “After she announced this proudly, she expected an applause. She mentioned how everyone knew her as ‘the good Christian girl’ and that she was proud of it.”
The second speaker, Budyach added, “was involved in the education sector in some way” and talked about “how a guy she met on a dating app ended up attempting to kill her by strangling her.” The woman allegedly told the students that she kept their romance secret, so no one would know if he did murder her. “She used this to ultimately make the argument that if something needs to be kept secret, then it shouldn’t be happening at all,” Budyach wrote.
After this warning about domestic violence, Budyach says, the woman also “emphasized that if she had waited for the man god meant for her, then it wouldn’t had happened. She uses this to essentially shame the concept of ‘dating around’ and took a soulmate-esque approach on the situation.”
“In addition,” Budyach wrote, “she explained that she had forgiven her ex boyfriend for his attempted murder, even if he wasn’t sorry. Again, there could possibly be a valuable message, however it’s lost in the traumatic storytelling and religious imagery.”
The third speaker was a nurse with a PhD, Budyach continued, and “gave an extremely detailed description of the morning that she had found her son’s body after he had hung himself.”
“She explained that this happened because her son was bullied,” Budyach claimed. “She used this story to say that people these days are too mean to each other and we need to stick together. For the third time, a possibly useful message hidden behind an extremely traumatizing account of a day that we had no warning or idea that we were going to learn about.”
When both student groups were called into the venue, a speaker named Donk “gave the most fantastical story one could imagine,” Budyach said.
“He started by saying at the age of 9 he was shot in the stomach and saw his intestines fall into his hands. Then, he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair from the ages of 11-13 (not sure what happened from 9-11). One day, according to him, he was with his grandma who was snoring very loudly and he started to wiggle his toes and wasn’t paralyzed anymore. Then, he started ‘messing with the wrong crowd’ and ended up in prison with a life sentence + 90 years on two counts of armed robbery and a murder. He said how he was sad in jail and tried to kill himself with a bedsheet (which he demonstrated with a prop sheet he had on stage), but somehow he changed his mindset and got out of jail,” Budyach wrote.
“At the end of everything, the host made the audience make a choice. He said, ‘If you want to eat, pizza is right outside those doors for you. If you choose change, if you want to get better, come towards the stage towards me.’ At this point we had not eaten and frankly, I was done being traumatized, so I left the building.”
In a statement, the school district appeared to defend the field trip, which was conducted in partnership with 29:11 Mentoring Families, a religious nonprofit for at-risk youth. (The group’s website says, “We believe by being Inspirational, Intentional and Intimate we’re able to redirect our students to Jesus Christ who defines their future and to change the world.”)
“The East Baton Rouge Parish School System has partnered with to provide additional support services for students in our district,” the school system said. “One of these initiatives is the ‘Day of Hope’ event. The event was structured to assist students with exploring what options are available after high school, along with allowing students to participate in breakout sessions and student-initiated activities and projects. By providing entertaining activities with an educational focus, this event was an elevation of a traditional college and career fair.
“Students were provided with lunch and a rare opportunity to mingle with their peers from other high schools in one setting. We look forward to seeing what our over 2,100 student participants will continue to achieve with the resources and knowledge gained from this event.”
One Facebook video from Aug. 31 promotes the event with 29:11’s founder Tremaine Sterling, who stands beside the school system’s superintendent Dr. Sito Narcisse. “I’m so excited about this partnership,” Narcisse says in the video. “We have great things coming between EBR and 29:11 Academy. It’s gonna be where all the seniors in all the high schools are going to participating. Just one of many partnerships that we have coming.”
“So save the date,” Sterling adds, “It’s going to be amazing. Thousands coming under one roof, to grow, to get better.”
Trey Holiday, a student who attended the event, told The Advocate that the college portion of the event included outdoor tents for only a few schools and programs.
“It kind of felt more like a spiritual event than a career and college fair,” he said.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.