Virginia Schools Closed After Backlash over Arabic Calligraphy Lesson: 'No One Was Trying to Convert the Students to Islam'
Parents erupt over homework assignment asking students to write a phrase in Arabic saying "There is no God but Allah "
Backlash over a homework assignment on Islam at a Virginia school led officials to cancel classes in the entire Augusta County district 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. Extracurricular activities were canceled on Thursday afternoon as well.
During a class on world religions on Dec. 11, a teacher at Riverheads High School in Staunton asked students to write religious calligraphy in Arabic.
The assignment read, “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The phrase translates to, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.”
Some parents viewed the homework assignment as trying to convert their children to Islam, calling and emailing the school in protest.
On Dec. 11, one parent invited other parents to discuss the assignment on social media and held a meeting on Tuesday night with about 150 people in attendance about “the indoctrination of the children that were given this homework assignment,” Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher tells PEOPLE.
When the meeting and the assignment became national news, it prompted many “profane” and “hateful” messages from around the country, says Fisher.
“There were no specific threats, just generic threats like, “Need to have her head on a stake,” says Fisher.
“The principal received about 10 or 12 photographs of people who had been beheaded,” he says. “That s the reason we said lets just cancel the extracurricular events and close the schools. We just don t want anyone to get hurt.”
The district doubled the amount of security and locked and monitored all doors at Riverheads High School on Wednesday and Thursday and begin winter break early by closing all schools Friday, he says.
On Friday, the district issued a statement further explaining the decision to close the schools. “First and most importantly, we are not aware of any specific threat of harm to students,” the statement reads. “However, we received significant numbers of email messages and phone calls. Some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials. Others threatened significant protests on or near school property. Those communications are in the hands of the sheriff.”
When the hateful messages escalated on Thursday, “The risk of harm to school officials and the risk of further disruption in the educational environment led the School Board, Sheriff Fisher and I to cancel school today and activities for the weekend,” the statement says.
“I apologize that these incidents disrupted instruction on Friday and activities over the weekend. As always, my priorities lie with the safety of my students, staff and community. Again, I wish each of you enjoyable time with friends and family over the break.”
The teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, told The News Leader that she got the assignment from a workbook on world religions.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the district said, “As we have emphasized, no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student s religious belief.
“Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth s Standards of Learning,” the statement continued, “a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future.”
More than 2,000 people came to the longtime teacher’s defense on a Facebook page called Support LaPorte.
Former student Grace Zimmerman wrote, “As a community, it is up to us to defend a teacher who is not in the wrong and deserves our support as she supported a great number of us through our high school years.”
Kacey LaPorte Bunch, who says she is the teacher’s daughter, wrote that her mother said she was “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.”