By Emma Brown and Moriah Balingit
Friday, December 18, 2015
A Virginia school system has decided to close schools Friday after a high school geography assignment on world religions led to allegations of Islamic indoctrination and a slew of angry emails and phone calls.
Augusta County School District officials said that there had been no specific threat of harm to students. But in a statement posted on the school district’s website, officials said they were concerned about the “tone and content of these communications.”
“We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution,” the statement says.
Superintendent Eric Bond did not respond to questions about why he canceled school given the lack of a specific threat, or about whether he considered the original assignment improper. Members of the school board also did not respond to requests for comment.
The school district serves about 10,000 students in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley west of Charlottesville, Va., about 150 miles from Washington, D.C.
A teacher at the district’s Riverheads High near Staunton, Va., gave an assignment asking students to try their hand at calligraphy by copying a statement in Arabic, according to the Staunton News Leader.
It was the Muslim statement of faith, according to the newspaper: “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
The assignment was meant to give students a sense for the art of calligraphy, according to the newspaper, and the teacher did not have the students translate the statement into English, require students to recite the statement, or say they believed in it.
The high school social studies teacher who gave the assignment, Cheryl LaPorte, declined to comment when reached by The Washington Post on Friday morning.
Some parents were outraged at what they saw as an attempt to proselytize Islam in a public school, a concern that has been echoed by parents in districts across the country over lessons about Islam. In Tennessee, there has been an uproar over teaching about Islam and ancient Islamic civilization to middle schoolers, prompting state lawmakers to consider legislation limiting the teaching of world religions to high schoolers,according to the Tennessean. A parent in Fairfax County, Va., also reported what she found to be inappropriate lessons about Islam at a school there last year.
But experts say that teaching about religion is critical in public schools because religion — including Islam — is essential to understanding everything from ancient history to current events. Religious literacy has taken on an especially important role now, as religion has become a regular part of political rhetoric in part because of fears of terrorism linked to jihad. That makes it even more important for schools to teach about it, experts say.
“To be an educated person, to be a citizen, to be part of the global conversation, to be engaged in our world, religious literacy is essential,” said Charles C. Haynes, the vice president of the Newseum Institute and the Religious Freedom Center. “More important than that is how are we going to live with one another in one of the most religiously diverse society in the world without understanding one another?”
As Islamophobia has risen along with terrorism concerns, learning about the religion can only help students — and society — understand Islam and its role in the world, experts say.
“I think it’s clear from history that fear and ignorance create intolerance and hate,” Haynes said. “The root problem here of many of the hostile things we see in our culture is lack of education about religions.”
In Augusta County, one parent’s recent post on Facebook accusing the school of religious indoctrination caught the attention of national media, triggering a community meeting and an avalanche of messages to the school system.
“These children were deceived when they were told it was calligraphy,” the parent, Kimberly Herndon, told NBC29 television. “This is not calligraphy, this is a language.”
Students were also invited to try on a hijab, or head scarf.
In the statement posted on the school district website, officials said that “no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student’s religious belief.”
Students will continue learning about world religions as required by state academic standards, they said. But in the future, students will practice calligraphy using a different sample that has nothing to do with Islam.
Supporters of the Riverheads teacher launched a Facebook page that has more than 2,000 members.
A separate Facebook page meant to protest the calligraphy lesson was overtaken by commenters who expressed support for the teacher and opposition to the page’s anti-Muslim sentiment, according to the Staunton News Leader. That page has now been removed by its creator, according to the newspaper.
Haynes, of the Religious Freedom Center, led the effort to formulate federal guidelines on how to teach about religion in public schools in 2000. He said teachers have to strike a balance between teaching about religious practices without having students mimic them. Many teachers lack the training to teach appropriately about religion, he said.
“As far as the calligraphy, I don’t think it was a good choice to have students write out the shahada,” Haynes said, referring to the Muslim statement of faith. “That’s really not appropriate. That’s like having students learn about Christianity by learning the Lord’s Prayer.”
A parent in Fairfax County, Va., the state’s largest district, said her son received a similar assignment last year, when he was in fifth grade at Ravensworth Elementary; a Fairfax County schools spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.
The parent, Rachel Butterfield, said the social studies assignment asked him to read aloud the Islamic profession of faith, along with other verses from the Koran. To Butterfield, that crossed the line between teaching about religion and teaching religion.
The four-page text on the “Beginnings of Islam” began by asking students to read aloud the Muslim statement of faith. “These words are from the Quran (kur AHN), the most holy book of the religion called Islam,” the introduction said. “It contains the most basic teachings of Islam. In this lesson you will read about how this religion came to hold great influence on the Arabian peninsula. In time Islam would spread throughout many areas of the world.”
The text goes on to describe the story of Muhammad and the teachings of Islam, including an excerpt from the Koran labeled as a “Many Voices Primary Source.”
If a similar lesson were taught within the context of any other major religion, she said – if you asked students to say that “Jesus is my one Lord,” for example – “someone is going to go bonkers over it.”
“It’s absolutely acceptable to learn about all of these other great religions that may not be our chosen faith, but there is a line, and that line is where you don’t go into very specific things like professions of faith,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield said she and her husband met with an assistant superintendent for the school system who agreed with them. She said the administrator told them that the assignment had been vetted at the district level, but that it appeared inappropriate and the teacher would be informed not to use it in the future.
She said she loves Ravensworth Elementary and the teachers there, and doesn’t believe anyone was trying to spread propaganda.
“There was nothing malicious,” she said. “It was just this particular lesson. … It literally sent chills up my spine. I thought, this can’t be right.”