From the Staunton (Va.) News Leader
By Megan Williams
About 100 people came to a forum Tuesday night to discuss a recent incident at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Va., that has upset students and parents.
During a world geography lesson on Friday about world religions, including Islam, teacher Cheryl LaPorte had students complete an assignment that involved practicing calligraphy and writing a Muslim statement of faith, also known as the shahada, which translates as: "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." Students were also reportedly shown copies of the Quran.
Recitation of the shahada is a fundamental step in conversion to Islam.
Students were not asked to translate the statement or to recite it. The lesson was found to be in line with Virginia Standards of Learning for the study of monotheistic world religions.
However, when a few students refused to complete the assignment the word got out to the parent community. Parents are "outraged" over LaPorte's lessons and say they will not have their students complete world geography in her class.
Kimberly Herndon, an Augusta County parent who organized the event, began the discussion and said that by having students write "indoctrination," LaPorte took away the students' right of religious freedom.
"That's why we need to join together," Herndon said. "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."
Herndon accused LaPorte of indoctrinating children into the Islamic faith and she hasn't sent her son back since the incident occurred. Herndon said she will take this to the Supreme Court if she has to.
"She gave up the Lord's time," Herndon said, of LaPorte's lessons on religions. "She gave it up and gave it to Mohammed."
The forum Tuesday was held at the Good News Ministries church in Greenville near Riverheads High School. Police officers were present and no one was allowed to bring in bags. Attendees were required to show photo identification and sign in before entering the church sanctuary where the discussion was held.
Augusta County resident Debbie Ballew said there is a double standard in public schools and in the public. She taught English and said had she asked children to copy passages from the Bible, she would have been fired.
Kim Page reminded the audience to not let this "create a state of fear in our lives."
"This is the perfect opportunity to pray for Ms. LaPorte," Page said. "This is an opportunity to pray for all Muslims.
More than one person at Tuesday's forum called for the teacher's termination.
Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond sent a press release in response to questions from a News Leader reporter. In the press release Bond said that when students learn about a geographic region they also study the religion and written language of the region. Consequently, students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, among others.
During students' study of the Middle East in LaPorte's class they were presented with an Islamic statement of faith written in Arabic, the press release said.
"The students were presented with the statement 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," according to Bond's press release. The statement was not translated and students were not asked to "translate it, recite it or otherwise adopt or pronounce it as a personal belief."
Students will engage in a similar assignment when they learn about China.
Students were also given the opportunity to try on a scarf as a part of an interactive lesson about the Islamic concept of modest dress. The scarf used in the activity was not an actual Islamic religious hijab.
Bond concluded his press release by saying, "Neither these lessons, nor any other lesson 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. Each of the lessons attempts objectively to present world religions in a way that is interesting and interactive for students."
Communication with the Virginia Department of Education says that LaPorte's lessons were in line with "Standards of Learning and the requirements for content instruction on world monotheistic religions."
Bond declined to answer additional News Leader questions, including whether LaPorte was disciplined in any way.
Local reaction to the issue on social media has been split, with many comments echoing themes from the Good News forum.
Others took critical aim at the arguments, though,
"Are any of you deeply disturbed parents concerned that your child might convert to Islam?" wrote John B. Parker of Waynesboro on Facebook. "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. Besides, if they don't learn about Islam at school, how will they know who to hate? Writing something on a piece of paper doesn't make it true.
"We're talking about Muslims, not witches."