Augusta County Public Schools in Virginia are closed Friday, after parents objected to a ninth grade geography assignment that required students to copy the Shahada, an Islamic statement of faith that says, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Kimberly Herndon said she was “shocked that this was sent home, shocked that this was in the schools [and] shocked that this was right here in our small town,” reports WHSV.com. Herndon added she felt her rights as a parent had been violated.
Augusta County Public Schools issued the following statement about the closure, which it noted was decided upon with the recommendation of law enforcement:
Augusta County Schools and all administrative offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015.
All after school activities for Thursday, December 17th are canceled.
Following parental objections to the World Geography curriculum and ensuing related media coverage, the school division began receiving voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area. As a result of those communications, the Sheriff’s Office and the school division coordinated to increase police presence at Augusta County schools and to monitor those communications. The communications have significantly increased in volume today and based on concerns regarding the tone and content of those communications, Sheriff Fisher and Dr. Bond mutually decided schools and school offices will be closed on Friday, December 18, 2015. While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015. All extra-curricular activities are likewise cancelled for tonight, Thursday, December 17, through the weekend. 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.
Finally, the Augusta County School Board and Dr. Bond appreciate parents bringing concerns directly to our attention, and a constructive and respectful dialogue between school and community is always welcome. As we have emphasized, no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student’s religious belief. Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future.
Herndon, whose son attends Riverheads High School, said the world geography assignment started out as one that focused on “the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” but believes it tried to indoctrinate her son into the Islamic religion.
“There was no trying about it,” she said. “The sheet that she [the teacher] gave out was pure indoctrinate in its origin.”
The school, however, states the lesson is in keeping with the Standards of Learning in Virginia. Interestingly, Virginia is one of the four states that did not adopt the Common Core State Standards.
Dr. Eric Bond – Augusta County School Superintendent – said, the lesson “attempts objectively to present world religions in a way that is interesting and interactive for students.”
“Neither these lessons, nor any other lesson in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion, or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief,” he said.
Bond’s statement was as follows:
As a part of a high school world geography course and consistent with the Standards of Learning, when students study a particular geographic region, the Virginia Department of Education Curriculum Framework and Scope and Sequence for World Geography includes the region’s culture, language, economy, foods, predominant religions, and political climate. As a part of each regional unit, students are invited to participate in hands-on activities intended to give them a better objective understanding of the region and its culture (including its religions) and to allow for interactive learning.
When they study a geographic region, students study the religion and written language of the region. Consequently, students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, among others. In one class, an assignment on religion and culture in the unit on the Middle East involved an Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. The students were presented with the statement to demonstrate the complex artistry of the written language used in the Middle East, and were asked to attempt to copy it in order to give the students an idea of the artistic complexity of the calligraphy. The statement presented as an example of the calligraphy was not translated for students, nor were students asked to translate it, recite it or otherwise adopt or pronounce it as a personal belief. They were simply asked to attempt to artistically render written Arabic in order to understand its artistic complexity. The students in the class will engage in similar calligraphy and drawing assignments when they study China, its unique written language and the yin and yang (a traditional symbol in Taoism and Confucianism).
Students learn material from the SOL Curriculum Framework in order to recognize cultural regions around the world by identifying characteristics of the “cultural landscape” such as dress, architecture, statues, monuments, music and art so the student can understand how cultural differences and similarities can link or divide regions. Students also learn about the cultures and the religious practices of the geographic regions they study. In one class during their study of the Middle East, students were taught about the modest dress adopted by many in the Islamic faith and were invited to try on a scarf as a part of an interactive lesson about the Islamic concept of modest dress. The scarf used in the activity was not an actual Islamic religious hijab. The students in the class can engage in similar assignments when they study China and Africa: student volunteers will be able to try on actual traditional Chinese clothing (chan song) and traditional African clothing (shuka). In addition, the students will be invited to observe and touch Buddhist prayer beads during the unit on China.
Neither these lessons, nor any other lesson in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion, or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief. Each of the lessons attempts objectively to present world religions in a way that is interesting and interactive for students.
Student Laura Truxell said she was uncomfortable with the assignment as well, even if it was simply to study calligraphy. “Why couldn’t we just learn to write ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’…you know, normal words, not that.”
Parents convened Tuesday night to discuss the situation. Herndon has not sent her son back to school since the assignment.
“I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian, and I’m going to stand behind Christ,” Herndon said.