Late last week, a high-school teacher in central Virginia gave her students a lesson in Arabic calligraphy. Over the following six days, schools in Augusta County were inundated with outraged phone calls and emails so harshly worded, the local sheriff and superintendent decided to cancel classes throughout the district on Friday, NBC Washington reports.
The district announced the closures Thursday night, attributing the measure to concerns over the “tone and content” of “voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area,” — all decrying a lesson in world geography held at Riverheads High School the previous Friday.
As part of a survey of world religions, teacher Cheryl LaPorte presented her students with the Muslim statement of faith, as rendered in Arabic calligraphy. LaPorte then asked her pupils to copy the string of characters as precisely as they could. The object of the assignment was to provide the students with “an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” the district’s superintendent Eric Bond would later explain to The News Leader. Bond further noted that the statement was never translated for the students and that a similar lesson was planned for an upcoming unit on Chinese culture. But by then, several outraged parents had already interpreted the exercise as an attempt to “indoctrinate” their children into Islam.
On Tuesday night, roughly 100 concerned parents attended a forum on the incident, according to The News Leader. The forum’s organizer, Augusta County parent Kimberly Herndon told the paper, “If my truth can not be spoken in schools, I don’t want false doctrine spoken in schools. That’s what keeps it even across the board.”
In the days following the forum, the volume of outraged communications increased significantly, leading Sheriff Randall Fisher to advise the district to cancel Friday’s classes.
According to The News Leader, local opinion on the incident has been sharply divided, with John B. Parker of Waynesboro, Virginia, writing on Facebook, “Are any of you deeply disturbed parents concerned that your child might convert to Islam? Is that the fear here? If you are far enough out of touch with your own child that you think their geography teacher might convert them to Islam against your will, then maybe it’s time to turn off the TV and spend some time with your kids.”
The school district told NBC Washington that Augusta County remains committed to educating its students in world religions, but will use non-religious samples of Arabic calligraphy in the future.