This past May, a group of sixth grade middle school students from the Wellesley, Massachusetts Public School District visited the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center as part of a school sponsored field trip. Our sister site Big Peace recently revealed the details of this visit, as well as the controversial ties that the center’s parent organization, the Muslim American Society, has to terrorism as what federal prosecutors have labeled as “the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.” Recently surfaced video footage from this trip as recorded by a parent chaperon depicts a series of activities that occurred as part of the Muslim mid-day prayer service at the center’s mosque.
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Some of the activities observed in the video not only push the boundaries of the appropriate role of schools in facilitating religious understanding, but they introduce elements of blatant discrimination that could be especially challenging to the average ten or eleven year old. It’s an angle to this story that does not appear to have been discussed to date.
Before the prayers commenced, the field trip attendees were religiously segregated. As seen on the video, the parent describes that the women chaperons, female teachers and schoolgirls were asked to leave the prayer area, while the boys were invited to stay and participate in prayer with the men.
Discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, national origin, religion, age, sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability or disability in any form will not be tolerated. (Page 1, Intro Paragraph)
Any student or staff member who, after an investigation, has been found to have engaged in the discrimination or harassment of a student or staff member in any school setting or at any school-sponsored event will be subject to disciplinary action. (Page 2, Bullet H)
‘Discrimination’ for the purpose of this policy is conduct or speech which conveys discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identification, race, color, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, religion, national origin and/or disability in any educational programs, activities, or employment. (Page 3, Paragraph 6)
In response to complaints and public backlash to the video, Wellesley School Superintendent Bella Wong issued an apology letter to parents and community members which states, in part:
On the second scheduled day, a representative of the Mosque told students they were welcome to join in the prayer that was occurring. Five students chose to participate… The fact that any students were allowed to do so was an error.
…Students only participate in these events with parental permission.
The school’s superintendent and members of the school’s staff are required to know the policy & regulations governing discrimination. Ms. Wong seems to have successfully evaded this detail in her “apology” letter. Either that, or she simply is not concerned about the legal or psychological impacts to the gender discrimination in Islam having being forced on adolescent school children during school hours. Why doesn’t Ms. Wong’s letter include an apology for that?
In addition, the superintendent seems to place some of the blame on the parents who unsuspectingly allowed their children to participate in the experience, pursuant to the content of the parental permission slip for the field trip:
During our visit, we will get a chance to hear from Islam from members of the Cultural Center, learn about the architecture of the mosque and observe a midday prayer.
Parents who allowed their children to attend the event did so based on their understanding of the permission slip. Any activity that occurred outside of those boundaries should have warranted intervention from the teachers on behalf of the students in attendance. The field trip should have been ended as soon as the girls were segregated from the boys. The boys being allowed to pray with the men in the mosque should never have occurred because the teachers, who are rigorously trained in discrimination policy & practice, were responsible to end it there.
In contrast, parents are typically not trained in such policy. Therefore, Ms. Wong’s attempt to share blame with the parents via her “Parents Permission” ploy is inadequate and nothing short of despicable. The permission slip violation essentially abrogated In Loco Parentis (in short, this includes a teacher’s legal “parental” responsibility over children during school).
For this reason, it’s equally important not to let the superintendent and site principal and social studies chair off the hook. Just as we emphasized in this post from our “Academia-Gate” series, educators have enormous power over children. Unfortunately, the opportunity for negligence and abuse does exist.
What’s far more dangerous is that the ideological academic, in his capacity as a professor, actually possesses the power to control. The power to influence students’ minds, to mold the students’ way of thinking…this is a frightening weapon.
The same concerns apply to primary education in many aspects. Perhaps this incident was a completely unintentional act of negligence; in other settings, there have been circumstances where an over zealousness on the part of one or some school officials to develop religious tolerance has overstepped the boundaries of the school’s role. Parents therefore should be made aware of and offered training in the policies that affect them and their rights to not be discriminated against.
Many who support the superintendent’s decisions may be looking at this solely from the perspective of religious tolerance. For instance, the Boston Globe published a follow-up story titled, “Wellesley parents seem to support students’ mosque trip,” which described one such example among others:
Hind Rakin, a Muslim, is the mother of a Wellesley sixth grader. She said she plans to allow her daughter to attend interfaith field trips and had already allowed her to experience services at a Jewish temple.
‘If we don’t help kids learn to love each other despite their differences, how are we going to stop all the anger over religion?’ Rakin asked. ‘There needs to be more respect and love in the world.’
Most will agree that encouraging children to embrace one another’s differences, including religious differences, is a positive thing. However, unless we consider the overall experience in which these children are participating, this is merely a naively Utopian quest for respect and religious tolerance. The potential for unintended, long-lasting consequences is a reality. By utilizing the methods practiced in Wellesley’s religious curriculum, could educators and parents alike be overlooking or ignoring the more basic premise of protecting children against religious and gender discrimination?
Watch the above video again. Put yourself in the place of one of these 10 year old schoolgirls, as you are asked to leave the prayer area and separated with all of the other female attendees, excluded from prayer for no other reason than your gender. Imagine observing the males in the next room, as they participate in prayer together. At 10 years old, does a young adolescent girl comprehend the religious rationale behind their exclusion? And are there lasting consequences to such an exercise?
In a country that has taken such pride in advancing civil rights and equality for women, how do you reconcile these stark contrasts, as the parent of a 10 year old?
Ms. Wong invites questions in her letter. As a parent, I would ask a few questions of the school superintendent:
- Upon observing the video, did you and the school district’s counsel not see the girls being segregated from the boys?
- Is religious gender segregation during a school-sponsored event something that you accept as appropriate?
- Who is responsible for administering policy in the Wellesley School District, and who trained the staff?
- When drafting your apology letter, did you and the school district’s counsel discuss your district’s discrimination policy?
In the end, one important question remains for parents across the country who are concerned after seeing this video and the response from school officials. How did Wellesley school teachers allow this to happen?
In Loco Parentis entitles parents to their children’s protection while at school from discrimination of any kind, regardless of what any specific religion demands. Trading in that protection at the expense of non-discriminatory treatment under the guise of religious tolerance is not only unacceptable, it’s un-American. There are other ways to educate children on various religions, including Islam, without violating anti-discrimination policies. Parents in the Wellesley Public School District would be wise to demand that the superintendent reassess the school district’s educational approach to this program, as well as its policies.
If Islam and the mosques that preach its doctrine are fundamentally in conflict with religious and gender discrimination policies, then immersing young students in this environment is clearly not the most beneficial or appropriate method of teaching religious tolerance.
Unless of course the next time students from the Wellesley Public School District visit a mosque, the girls and women will be invited to pray with the boys and men.