Virginia county closes schools over Arabic calligraphy homework

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The Augusta County School Board in Virginia ordered all public schools closed following a slew of complaints from parents outraged over a high school geography assignment that had their children practicing Arabic calligraphy.

Media coverage of the complaints created a backlash of phone calls and emails for Riverheads High School, and officials decided to close all public schools on Friday and increase police presence as a result.

“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,” wrote the Augusta County School Board in a statement. “Based on concerns regarding the tone and content of those communications…schools and school offices will be closed on Friday, December 18, 2015.”

While the school board was non-specific about the calls and complaints, several tweets directed people to call the school and the teacher at the center of the controversy.

The outrage followed a school assignment in a world geography lesson last week about world religions, including Islam. Teacher Cheryl LaPonte gave students an assignment that involved practicing calligraphy and writing a Muslim statement of faith, also known as shahada. The statement translates as: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Students were also reportedly shown copies of the Koran.

According to News Leader, the local newspaper, recitation of the shahada is a “fundamental step in conversion to Islam.” Students were not asked to translate the statement or to recite it, and the exercise was within the Virginia Standards of Learning for the study of monotheistic world religions. Some students refused to complete the assignment, and some parents became outraged to the point that they wanted to pull their children out of the world geography class, the newspaper said.

Dozens of upset parents and students attended a forum at the Good News Ministries on Tuesday to express their opinions concerning the assignment. It was organized by Kimberly Herndon, a parent who has kept her nine-year-old son at home since ill-fated geography class.

“I will not have my child 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 told WTVR.

Herndon said she will take the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Augusta County resident and former English teacher Debbie Ballew told News Leader that there is a double standard amongst public schools and the public. She said that if she had asked her pupils to copy passages from the Bible, she would have been fired. More than one person at the forum called for the teacher’s termination.

Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond sent a statement to News Leader explaining that when the students learn about a geographic region they also study its religion and written language. Students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, among other faiths.

Bond said the assignment was meant to teach students “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.”

In the notice about the school closings, the Augusta County School Board said they appreciated parents bringing the problem to their attention.

“As we have emphasized, no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student’s religious belief,” said the board. “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.”