Whoa, this is a VERY extreme reaction to a homework assignment.
Here’s what happened. Recently, the world geography class at Riverheads High School in Augusta, VA was covering the “major world religions” section of the curriculum. According to local newspaper The News Leader, teacher Cheryl LaPorte gave her students a homework assignment that she had found in a standard workbook on world religions. The assignment, which was on Islam, asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
“Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic,” read the directions. “In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The phrase to copy was the basic statement in Islam, and it translated to “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” Many parents who saw the homework assignment read it as an attempt to convert their children to Islam, and they flooded the school with calls, demanding for the firing of LaPorte for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” according to The News Leader. When the paper reached out to LaPorte for comment, she responded saying that her job was to get the students through the Standards of Learning tests.
The school responded by removing the shahada from the curriculum, saying that a “different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future.”
“Neither of these lessons, nor any other lessons 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,” Augusta County Schools official Eric Bond said, according to CNN.
However, that statement wasn’t enough for parent Kimberly Herndon, who kept her ninth-grade son home from school. “There was no trying about it,” she told WHSV. “The sheet that [LaPorte gave out was pure indoctrinate in its origin. I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian.”
Herndon spearheaded the effort to get LaPorte fired by encouraging other parents to protest, even gathering in Good Will Ministries. The school issued a letter ensuring parents that their children were safe in the school. However, the situation escalated to the point where the school was receiving “voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area” targeting the world geography class. The “tone and content of those communications” led to officers being deployed to the school and the monitoring of communications before the school was ultimately closed down on Friday.
“While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015,” Augusta County Schools said in a statement on their website.
During all of this, support had grown in massive volumes for LaPorte, including the formation of a Facebook group called Support Laporte. The group had over 5,000 members by Saturday morning. “I keep seeing the word ‘indoctrination’ being thrown around and, as an RHS alumna, I take great offense to it,” said Kari Watson, according to The News Leader. “I love this school, and Mrs. LaPorte is a wonderful teacher. It is outrageous to believe she is trying to convert anyone to Islam. Please, choose your media outlets wisely and be aware of what you’re spreading.”
Professors and teachers have also been standing up for her, explaining that her lesson was necessary and important. “A large majority of [students] are from the [Shenandoah] Valley, and they don’t know anything about any other religions besides their own,” Bridgewater College Professor Nancy Klancher, who teaches philosophy and religion and interfaith studies, told The News Leader.
“We’re going to encounter it in school, in our work and our social lives,” Ed Martin, director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University, told the publication. “Intellectual presentation is not calling for people to change their religion.”
Though Herndon spoke about taking legal action, no known steps have been taken. According to The News Leader, the teacher’s daughter, Kacey LaPorte Bunch, posted a message to LaPorte’s supporters: “My mother wanted me to share the following message with you: ‘I have been humbled by the love and support I have received from so many wonderful people. Thank you all, and please know you put the HAPPY back in my holidays. Mrs. LaPorte.'”
(Image via Twitter.)