Public speaking at Hidden Valley schools sparks debate | Education

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A nationally known Christian evangelist will speak at two Roanoke County schools next month, leading some parents to question whether the event is a violation of the First Amendment.

In addition to founding Wilderness Driven Ministries, Nathan Harmon also created Your Life Speaks, the company he uses for his motivational speaking at places like public schools. Harmon and the Roanoke County School System say his pep talk is devoid of any sort of religious speech.

The issue of the separation of church and state began on social media this week when parents discovered Harmon would be speaking March 10 at Hidden Valley Middle and High School.

A range of parents, primarily involved in a Facebook group of more than 1,300 members – Roanoke County Parents for A Common Sense School Board – have raised questions about whether to have Harmon talk to kids about mental health issues, bullying, substance abuse and more.

In addition to questions about incorporating his Christian beliefs into his speeches, the parents asked what makes Harmon, 36, qualified to speak on these topics, as he is not a licensed mental health professional.

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According to his biography on www.yourlifespeaks.orgher message “comes from a combination of a troubled past and a strong desire to help others overcome many of her same struggles”.

Among the struggles mentioned are his dealing with divorced parents, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, alcohol and drug addiction, bulimia, and eventually jail time.

Harmon served time in prison for a drunk driving accident where he crashed into a tree, resulting in the death of a friend when she was ejected from the car, according to videos of his interviews found online .

County Schools spokesperson Chuck Lionberger wrote in an email that the event was originally scheduled for 2020, with school board member Cheryl Facciani serving as its main facilitator, but it was delayed due to COVID. -19.

Facciani, who also acknowledged being a “driving force” behind Harmon’s move to Windsor Hills District Schools, wrote in a text message that “Harmon was not hired because of his religious beliefs.”

“In fact, his personal religious convictions have nothing to do with the assembly, but that is not a problem, because the subjects of the assembly have nothing to do with religion,” he said. she writes Thursday afternoon. “Nathan was hired because he is the number one national speaker on important issues and topics facing students today.”

Harmon addressed parents’ concerns in a phone call with a Roanoke Times reporter, saying he’s spoken at more than 1,000 schools and that religion never played a role in his message to students.

“The program is 100% just life and the app of life, my friend,” he said. “A lot of people from Roanoke have contacted our organization…That’s just life. I just want to ease anyone’s crazy worries” about religion in the program.

He said programs can last 60 to 90 minutes depending on the topics, which are then followed by breakout sessions with “high-risk” students, which he says are determined by school officials.

Individual administrations determine who speaks at a particular school, according to Lionberger.

“The administration has spoken to Mr. Harmon’s representative and we have reiterated the requirement that the presentation remain secular and maintain the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an email. .

Lionberger said the school system doesn’t know the cost of the program since it was sponsored by several local businesses, including Vistar Eye Center, where Facciani’s husband works as an ophthalmologist in the pediatric ward, according to Vistar’s website.

Facciani did not respond to a question about the cost of the event, nor did Harmon.

High school topics will include drug and alcohol addiction, peer pressure, the value of people, anxiety, self-harm, suicide and the power to choose, according to Lionberger, while middle school will hear about self -bullying, good choices, vaping, safety and pressure anxiety.

Lionberger also noted that parents will be able to remove their children from the assembly.

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