By Lynn R. Mitchell
Augusta County schools were unexpectedly locked down late Thursday after regular classes concluded, and all after-school activities were canceled including sports events and a holiday concert at Wilson Memorial High School. Parents received automated phone calls notifying that Friday classes, the last day before holiday break, were canceled.
The move came after the rural area located in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia unexpectedly found itself in the middle of a fire storm of controversy after a world geography class at Riverheads High School caused concern among some parents. Students were asked to participate in a calligraphy lesson writing the Muslim statement of faith, a lesson that has not settled well with some in the community. Conservative news outlets picked up on the controversy and news of it has spread across the country.
The result of so much publicity was a decision by Augusta County’s school board and law enforcement to cancel classes. A message was posted late Thursday on the school system’s website noting that schools and administrative offices would be closed on Friday:
“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. As a result of those communications, the Sheriff’s Office and the school division coordinated to increase police presence at Augusta County schools and to monitor those communications.
“The communications have significantly increased in volume today and based on concerns regarding the tone and content of those communications, Sheriff Fisher and Dr. Bond mutually decided schools and school offices will be closed on Friday, December 18, 2015. While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015. All extra-curricular activities are likewise cancelled for tonight, Thursday, December 17, through the weekend. We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution.
“Finally, the Augusta County School Board and Dr. Bond appreciate parents bringing concerns directly to our attention, and a constructive and respectful dialogue between school and community is always welcome. 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, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future.”
The latest move came after the incident was first reported by conservative radio personality Rob Schilling in Charlottesville, and picked up by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh as well as other news outlets including CNN. Schilling reported:
Classroom teacher, Cheri Laporte, asked students to practice “calligraphy” by copying the 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.”
Recitation of the shahada is a fundamental step in conversion to Islam.
According to parents, students were not informed of the translation or of the specific meaning of the Arabic text the students were being asked to copy. In addition, parents confirm that female students were invited to don Muslim apparel and subsequently were photographed in costume by the teacher.
A groundswell of outrage spread nationwide and now the attention has taken a toll on the school system where increased security had been put into place, as reported by Megan Williams at the Staunton News Leader:
There are more Augusta County Sheriff’s deputies in the school and the front doors are locked at all times, relying on office workers to walk to the front of the building to let visitors in. Principal Max Lowe said despite these measures the climate at school this week has been “good” and that he hasn’t heard from students that they are feeling any extra pressure.
Students … said things have been weird this week.
Increased concerns over terrorism especially after the November 2015 attacks in Paris by radical Muslims that killed 129 people, and another in California earlier this month that killed 14, have some on edge, along with a continued crack-down on the Christian religion in a country that was founded on the belief of religious liberty.
On Thursday there was a call for calm in Augusta County:
Just a few days after more than 100 people met in fury over a world geography assignment given by a teacher at Riverheads High School, the tide seems to have turned and support for Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher in question, in spreading over Facebook, including taking over the page dedicated to Tuesday night’s forum.
LaPorte, a veteran teacher with Augusta County Schools asked students to practice Arabesque calligraphy by copying an Islamic statement of faith, known as the shahada, as part of a block on world religions, including Islam. Initial reaction from Christian parents called for such extreme actions as having LaPorte fired for “violating children’s religious beliefs.” However, both the Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it both in-line with state standards, as well as not violating student rights.
Former students of LaPorte, concerned citizens and parents have taken to social media to ask the parents who initiated the case against LaPorte, to stop. An event created to rally outraged parents to a forum Tuesday night at a church near Riverheads High School, has since been taken over with posts criticizing the actions of those who created the event. It was eventually taken off Facebook on Wednesday.
Thursday afternoon’s school shut-down had parents leaving messages on local news outlet websites as well as Facebook. While some feel the incident has been blown out of proportion especially by those outside Augusta County, others feel blindsided by the school system.
Now that school has been canceled, any holiday parties or gift exchanges planned for the last day will not take place and students will return in January 2016.