Virginia county closes schools as Islam assignment prompts backlash
RICHMOND, Virginia – Schools in a Virginia county closed on Friday as a safety precaution after a classroom assignment asking students to practice Arabic calligraphy using a Muslim statement of faith sparked an angry outcry from parents and threats from outside the district.
Augusta County Public Schools officials said no specific threat of harm had been made against students in the district, located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley about 150 miles (240 km) southwest of Washington.
But the volume of calls and emails related to the high school class lesson and concerns over their “tone and content” prompted the school closures, according to a statement on the district’s website.
The outcry over a lesson based on a brief Muslim text appeared to reflect a current mood of anxiety and distrust of Muslims among some Americans.
The move followed a Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, California by a married couple who killed 14 people and were said by authorities to be inspired by militant Islamism, and attacks in Paris by Islamic State militants on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people.
“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 school district statement said.
Extracurricular activities on Thursday and through the weekend were also canceled for the district’s approximately 10,000 students.
A rash of email and phone threats of violence hit schools across the country this week. Most were deemed not credible and schools opened.
Los Angeles officials closed the country’s second largest public school system on Tuesday after receiving emailed threats that were later deemed a hoax, a move that was criticized by some as overreaction.
The backlash in Augusta County, Virginia, was triggered by an assignment last week in a world geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, local news reports said.
As part of a study of the Middle East, a teacher instructed her students to copy a Muslim statement of faith written in Arabic and intended to show the complexity of calligraphy, the school superintendent told the News Leader newspaper.
The statement translates as “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Some parents have accused the teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, of trying to indoctrinate students with Islam and are calling for her to be fired.
“I do not trust her to teach my son and regardless of the outcome he will not sit in her classroom,” mother Kimberly Herndon said in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 300 times.
The school district said in its statement that students would continue to learn about world religions as required by the state but a non-religious sample of Arabic writing would be used in the future.
“No lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student’s religious belief,” the statement said.
LaPorte said she had received overwhelming support from former students, colleagues and others in the community.
“All I want now is time for our community to heal,” she said in an email to Reuters.
In an unrelated closure, Franklin Community Schools in Indiana were shut on Friday after a high school was evacuated a day earlier due to a threat.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it was assisting in local probes of separate threats that lead officials in the suburban Indianapolis school districts in Plainfield and Danville to cancel classes on Thursday. –Reuters