Arabic calligraphy fracas closes Virginia school district

Residents in rural Augusta County say controversy over homework assignment the result of just a few outraged parents

Officials closed all schools in a Virginia district as a precaution on Friday, days after an Arabic calligraphy assignment in a high school textbook sparked anger among some parents who said the exercise was meant to convert their children to Islam.

The closing comes amid heated rhetoric from politicians after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California carried out by a Muslim couple earlier this month

“While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday,” the Augusta County school district said in a statement posted online. The “tone and content” of some complaints to the school raised concern, the statement said.

Residents of the western Virginia town of Greenville described a sharp split between the majority of people in Augusta County who have no problem with the Arabic calligraphy lesson, and a vocal minority who raised alarms.

“I think this is something that this community could have done without,” said Chris Bobb, 41, a machinist who lives in the county, adding that most people think the fuss is “ridiculous.”

The closure has been unfortunate for students, Bobb said.

“All the Christmas programs, all the choir and band programs that these kids have been working on for weeks and months have been cancelled. And it’s all due to someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on,” he said, referring to Rivershead High School parent Kimberly Herndon.

Herndon and a few other Riverheads parents had complained to school officials after the Arabic lesson was assigned a week ago for a World Geography class, with some parents saying it was an attempt to indoctrinate their children into the Muslim faith. The homework assignment asked students to copy — but not translate or recite — the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith that declares there is only one God and that Muhammad is his messenger.

At a public forum held by school officials Tuesday to discuss the issue, several parents called for the termination of Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher who made the assignment. Herndon echoed their call on Facebook.  

“She should be fired because she had them write an abomination to their faith and causes a little girl to cry herself to sleep because she was worried she had denounced her God,” read a post made Wednesday on Herndon’s Facebook page. It said LaPorte was trying to “INDOCRINATE our kids into a religion of hate.” 

Herndon hadn’t replied to a message seeking comment by time of publication, and calls to the school district office went unanswered Friday. 

The uproar has caused some parents in the community to decry what they see as a climate of irrational fear. 

"My kids are still very small, but it scares me to live in a community where the reaction by some parents to a fairly innocuous school assignment is so frightening and over-the-top that schools are forced to close," said Erika Zipser, 31, a parent of two infants who she said will one day attend Augusta public schools.  

"I just want people to be aware that we are not all bigots around here," Zipser said. 

In its statement announcing the closure late Thursday, the school district said that “no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any religious belief.” However, it said the district will use a “different, non-religious example” of Arabic calligraphy for students to copy in the future.

LaPorte has received an outpouring of goodwill from many community members, students and school alumni, some of whom started a Facebook group called “Support LaPorte.” Many said the uproar over the assignment was absurd.

Taylor Dupree, 22, who graduated from Rivershead High in 2011, said she remembered the lesson about Islam in LaPorte’s class. She said she came from an observant Christian family and the assignment was first thing she had learned about Islam.

“It was a really good class,” Dupree said.

“I think that unfortunately the area I’m from is a deeply religious area, and it’s a very opinionated area. I just think that Ms. LaPorte was trying to open eyes, and I think this backlash proves we really need that in this area,” she said. “Without the sensationalism in the media right now, this would be a much smaller issue.”

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has denounced the fear of learning about Islam as bigotry spurred on by recent caustic political speech against Muslims. Last week Republican frontrunner Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslim foreigners coming into the United States, and has backed a plan to monitor every member of the religion in the country.

“Major public figures are stoking anti-Muslim bigotry. They’re pandering to the lowest common denominator to boost their poll numbers. These public figures are mainstreaming anti-Muslim bigotry so that those who had not expressed it now feel the freedom to do so,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR.

CAIR on Thursday released a report saying 2015 had seen the most attacks on mosques that the group has recorded since it began recording such incidents in 2009. So far in 2015, 71 mosques have been threatened or damaged, with 17 acts in November alone, the group said.

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