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Augusta County schools closed Friday following response to Arabic calligraphy assignment

Neighboring county received numerous phone calls, emails, instituted increased police presence

Augusta County schools were closed Friday after receiving numerous phone calls and emails from parents regarding a world geography assignment that included copying Arabic calligraphy.

As part of the assignment, students in a freshman world geography class at Riverheads High School were asked to trace the Shahada, an Islamic statement of faith written in Arabic calligraphy, in order to gain an “idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” the assignment instructions read.

The statement translates to read, “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” An alternative translation is “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad was Allah's messenger.”

Some parents asserted that the lesson was an attempt to indoctrinate students to the Islamic faith.

Augusta County schools released a statement citing the “tone and content” of resulting emails and phone calls as the reason for the closure. As a result, schools in the county have had an increased police presence since earlier in the week.

The increased police presence at the schools was not a result of any direct or perceived threat to students, Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond said in an email statement to parents.

"Some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials. Others threatened significant protests on or near school property,” Bond said. “Those communications are in the hands of the sheriff. I thank Sheriff Fisher for his help providing additional security at the schools this week and monitoring the vast amount of communication we received.”

Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher who distributed the assignment, said she took the assignment from a standard workbook about world religions and was not responsible for the assignment’s design.

Bond said in a statement Dec. 15 that the Virginia Standards of Learning require students to learn about the culture — including the religious beliefs — of each geographic region they study.

“When they study a geographic region, students study the religion and written language of the region,” Bond said. “Consequently, students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, among others.”

“As a part of each regional unit, students are invited to participate in hands-on activities intended to give them a better objective understanding of the region and its culture (including its religions) and to allow for interactive learning” he said.

Some of the hands-on activities have also included trying on clothing from different cultures.

Although the school system said it will use a non-religious excerpt of Arabic calligraphy for future assignments, Bond said the lesson was not intended to promote a particular religious faith.

“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,” Bond said.

Nevertheless, some parents and community members still believe the lesson should never have been used in the classroom.

Kimberly Herndon was one of the parents who expressed her concern with school administrators and took to social media to share her frustration about the assignment.

“I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta county school,” Herndon wrote in a public Facebook post from Dec. 11, which received over 1,200 shares. “This evil has been cloked in the form of multiculturism.”

Herndon wrote in her post that students were “unknowingly … instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam.”

“This creed is connected to Jihad in that it is the chant that is shouted while beheading those of Christian faith, or people of the cross as being called by ISIS,” she wrote in the widely-shared post.

Other community members have expressed their support for the teacher involved in this controversy by joining a Facebook group entitled “SUPPORT LAPORTE.” The group has over 5,300 members.

Charlottesville resident and Riverheads High School alum Grace Zimmerman co-founded the group after feeling that LaPorte was being attacked in the community and the media.

“We wanted Mrs. LaPorte to know that there is a support group for her, there are people in this community who do not agree with what was going on and we wanted her to know that we support her completely,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman is one of LaPorte’s former students and said LaPorte covered every religion that was part of the required curriculum when Zimmerman was in her world geography class.

“Indoctrination takes a whole lot more than drawing calligraphy,” Zimmerman said. “It takes a whole lot more to be indoctrinated into a religion than just learning a base about the culture.”

Zimmerman also said she believes the situation received so much backlash because the school is in a small town in the Bible Belt and “there's a lot of confusion.”

“I think that things were blown out of proportion,” she said. “I think that a lot of people may not understand or may not be familiar with some of the different cultures and it makes them scared, especially due to current events.”

The controversy is a question of curriculum and should not be viewed as a religious conflict, Zimmerman said.

“It’s not religion against religion — it’s the simple fact of did a teacher or did she not follow the curriculum,” Zimmerman said. “As far as looking into the curriculum outlines and whatnot — she did. It’s not religion against religion at all.”

Other teachers at Riverheads High School and in the community are worthy of community support for their efforts to defend LaPorte, Zimmerman said.

“I personally, I feel terrible for the students, I feel terrible for the teachers, I think it’s sad that this all has caused such a ruckus in the community and that these kids can’t even attend school,” she said.

Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools Pam Moran said closing schools is a decision that school divisions take very seriously.

“School administrators across the United States are increasingly faced with making judgement calls regarding threats, particularly in light of contemporary communication applications,” Moran said in an email statement.

Each school and division in Virginia is required to have a crisis plan annually updated and approved by local school boards before those plans are submitted to the Virginia Department of Education, Moran said.

“When faced with a threat or threats, a team that includes local law enforcement and staff crisis team members evaluate credibility and determine actions to be taken,” Moran said. “As in any situation, the full facts of a particular case may be protected because of personnel or other legal implications.”

The top priority for all superintendents is ensuring the safety of students, Moran said.

Herndon could not be reached for comment.

The calligraphy issue will be discussed at a Jan. 7 Augusta County School Board meeting.