Be careful what you write — or what you ask high school children to write — in parts of Virginia. Apparently, having a go at the centuries-old skill of Arabic calligraphy by copying out the Islamic statement of faith could do funny things to your brain.
Parents of pupils at Riverheads High School in Augusta County managed to get themselves so worked up when their children were taught something about Arabic culture — during a World Geography class when they learn about different cultures — that schools across the district had to be closed down.
During a section where students learn about different world religions, teacher Cheryl LaPorte decided to demonstrate the intricacies of Arabic calligraphy, the earliest form of which dates back to the end of the 7th century, by asking the students to try to copy the shahada — the Islamic statement of faith, a basic proclamation that is one of the five Pillars of Islam.
The students were "not asked to translate the statement or to recite it," said Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond in a statement. Rather, the teacher aimed to give students an "idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy." The exercise was taken from a teacher workbook called World Religions.
However some of the students objected, refused to do the calligraphy, and alerted their parents who claimed LaPorte had tried to "indoctrinate" their children.
And if you're going to indoctrinate students into a religious faith, then it had better be the right one. "She gave up the Lord's time. She gave it up and gave it to Muhammad," said Kimberly Herndon, a mother who organized a protest at a school meeting.
The meeting was held on Tuesday at Good News Ministries church in Greenville near Riverheads High School, reported News Leader, with police officers present and everyone searched on entry.
Augusta County resident Debbie Ballew said she taught English and claimed if she had asked children to copy passages from the Bible, she would have been fired.
"This is the perfect opportunity to pray for Ms LaPorte," said another attendee, Kim Page. "This is an opportunity to pray for all Muslims." Page asked the audience not to let the incident "create a state of fear in our lives."
More than one person demanded LaPorte be fired.
The next step was so many angry phone calls and emails to the county school district that officials felt they had to increase police presence at schools, and then felt they had to close them down entirely. A statement from Augusta County Public Schools said the decision to close the schools was based on the "tone and content" of the communications "based on the recommendations of law enforcement."
Other people, including former students, took to social media to support LaPorte.
"As a community, it is up to us to defend a teacher who is not in the wrong and deserves our support as she supported a great number of us through our high school years," posted former student Grace Zimmerman.
"I keep seeing the word, 'indoctrination' being thrown around and, as an RHS alumna, I take great offense to it," said Kari Watson. "I love this school, and Mrs. LaPorte is a wonderful teacher. It is outrageous to believe she is trying to convert anyone to Islam. Please, choose your media outlets wisely and be aware of what you're spreading."
The school has said in future it will use a non-religious phrase — during its classes on world religions — despite its confirmation that the material was in line with Virginia state standards and requirements for this kind of lesson.
The Center for American-Islamic Relations has documented a widespread backlash against Muslims in the United States since last month's terror attacks in Paris, with an "unprecedented" spike in Islamophobic "violent attacks, threats, assaults, protests, and instances of vandalism."
Photo via Flickr