By Anwen Sleath, Rob Osborne and Kathryn Charles
There are questions around how a number of schools in south Wales were able to continue a partnership with an American evangelical Christian church for ten years - despite complaints about its messaging.
In an investigation by The News Movement and ITV Wales, two former students from Bridgend have spoken about how they were exposed to anti-gay beliefs during the visits by members of the Louisana church.
A teacher also revealed how members were allowed to lead discussions on creationism in her science lessons which made her "uneasy".
Known as the Bridgend/Louisana partnership, a number of “cultural exchanges” took place between the First West Baptist Church from 2009 until 2018 - and was in the wake of a high number of suicides of young people in the area.
Over a two-year period, 26 people between the ages of 15-28 were recorded as taking their own lives.
And while police found no evidence linking the cases together, one former teacher said many were “worried” for their students during this time.
"It was a really worrying time"
Darryl Sleath, a former Geography teacher said, “Bridgend really started to have a bit of a reputation… it was a really worrying time”.
“We [schools] were open to help and we did reach out to external agencies and any group that could offer some support. Helplines, charities that could offer emotional support and we were open to help from anywhere really.”
The First West Baptist Church began partnering with schools in Bridgend as part of an outreach programme after it said it made contact with local pastors in the area.
They began visiting a number of schools once a year, and it involved church members holding music concerts for pupils where bodybuilders and football freestylers would entertain the students.
Members of the evangelical church described the visits as a “gift” to Bridgend and a “cultural education experience” for the students.
Over the ten years, the church visited more than 20 schools, a mix of primary, secondary and comprehensive and faith schools.
The church's own website states, “Christians should oppose"... all forms of sexual immorality” including “homosexuality” and opposes abortion.
As well as entertainment, church members would enter classrooms and lead on a range of subjects, such as history, maths and science.
While teachers were present in the classroom, one biology teacher has spoken about how she felt "uneasy" hearing what her students were being told.
"I asked that they didn’t come into my classroom"
Dr Varuni Rathkey, a biology teacher, said: "I had actually asked that they [church members] didn’t come into my classroom because it made me feel quite uneasy.
"They would go into why they thought Darwin and science has been a lie.
"The last time, there was a teacher of science and he said,, ‘This is what I teach to my children’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Miss, do you have anything to say?’ as if goading, and then the kids looked at me like I should be saying something. I said, ‘Well yeah, I do have a problem with what you’re saying’. Then he started backing out and said, ‘We’ve got to go to a different class now."
“I’m a teacher, I’m there to educate my pupils and whatever beliefs I have, that has no relevance to what I have to teach and the science curriculum. So it goes against my belief as a teacher and my role as a teacher.”
What is creationism?
Creationism is the belief that God made the world in seven days and rejects Darwin's theory of evolution.
The teaching of creationism in science lessons in England is banned in all publicly-funded schools. There were calls in 2019 for a similar ban following the publishing of the new draft Welsh curriculum, but the government in Wales decided against imposing one.
Will, a former student at another school which partnered with the church, said he complained to his teachers after sitting in on a discussion about homosexuality in 2015.
"I remember them coming into my religious class, they didn't really say much then. But as the years went on, it progressed into us asking more questions towards them. And that's when the issues started.
"It was us asking them what they thought about equal rights and gay marriage, and that’s when they came back saying, ‘We don't stand by this, we dont believe that gay people should get married.’
"I actively challenged them and like I thought this isn't for me because they're not in relation to my life. They’re not representing me. They’re actively against me.
“I was very upset, very angry by it.”
All local authorities, schools and colleges in Wales have a legal duty to protect and promote the well-being of children under 18 as part of safeguarding guidelines.
Will claimed an assembly was held the next day and pupils were told the group would not be returning.
“[My head of year] sat our entire year group down [and said], ‘They’re never going to come back, we’re not going to do this, we’re not these people, we’re not represented by these people, we are an equal school.”
Will claimed the group returned the following year.
Will’s former school said there is no record of any formal complaint about the visits.
Will said: “If anything they put me more into a box they pushed queer people back into a box and said queer people shouldn’t have the same rights. That’s definitely not going to help suicide prevention is it”.
Kate attended the same school as Will. She said she recalled the same conversation about homosexuality.
“We had an assembly after they had gone and they [the teachers] said, ‘This happened, it was wrong, we won’t have them back, we don’t agree with this, we don’t condone this’. Then obviously they came back the next year like normal, so it was like, ‘Oh right. Ok then’”.
"What was the real objective of the group?"
Bridgend's local MS Sarah Murphy told ITV Cymru Wales that she was "shocked" that a partnership of this kind had been "going on for so long".
"I had no idea this was happening. I don't think that many people in our community were aware.
"There are young people who have said that they've been harmed by this.
"Was this really a cultural exchange?
"What was the real objective of the group? Ultimately... this is related to a very difficult, sensitive, tragic part of our past in Bridgend.
“Did it really achieve what it said it was going to do? Has it helped people? And again, if the answer to that is no, my personal opinion is there should be serious questions raised about whether this should continue."
ITV Wales contacted First West Baptist Church for a response to the allegations made.
Associate pastor Mark Fenn responded and said: “We designed instructional content based on requests and approval of the teachers and head teachers”.
On the subject of creationism being taught in science lessons, he claimed that particular topic was “presented as requested from a scientific perspective … by a highly qualified well-prepared high school science teach on our team.”
The church said homosexuality was never one of its “teaching topics”.
Mr Fenn added: “If that subject was addressed at all, it was strictly in response to a direct question from one of the students, and was answered with the permission of the teacher.
“The answer from one of our team would have been given in kindness, respect, and honesty, from a biblical perspective.
“In no way was a gay student ever demeaned in any way."
He added: "The schools’ safeguarding guidelines were completely honored in each of our visits.
"We received no complaints about our visits to the schools. Furthermore, the fact that the heads of schools enthusiastically invited us back year after year should be plenty evidence that not only did we not do or say anything inappropriate, but we added value to the school experience”.
He added that the church is open to returning to South Wales.
In a statement, Will and Kate’s former school said there are “no plans” for the school to host any further visits from the group.
It said: “No formal complaints or concerns have ever been received or placed on record regarding the content of these now-historical cultural exchange events, either by the school or the local authority.
“Before agreeing to host any cultural exchange event of this nature, we would seek reassurances regarding scope and content in addition to carrying out all other relevant checks and safeguarding procedures.”
Dr Rathkey’s former school was also approached for comment, but ITV Wales nor The News Movement have received a response.
Bridgend County Borough Council said: “We would like to make clear that both the council and its schools have never received any complaints about the Bridgend Louisiana Partnership.
“We would also like to reiterate that the council has never been in contact with the partnership and all visits were arranged following direct approaches to local schools.
“The last visit was in 2018 and, as is the case with all third-party visits, school staff were present at all times.
“The council are not aware of any future visits to Bridgend County Borough by the group.
“As a matter of course, all third-party visitor requests are reviewed by schools in line with latest guidance.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Young people have a right to be heard and feel respected at school, they should not be made to feel uncomfortable.
"Content of lessons should be decided by teachers with input from pupils. Evolution is a mandatory part of the new curriculum for Wales. Separately, when teaching religious views, schools are legally required to make sure learning presents a range of views and values on different issues, not one particular belief or ideology.
“The Curriculum for Wales has been very popular since its introduction last year. We’re proud of the changes we’ve made to Relationships and Sexuality Education to recognise the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and to make sure young people know how to keep safe.”