In Brief

Arabic Calligraphy Assignment Prompts Countywide School Shutdown in Virginia

(all photos courtesy Support Laporte)

Officials in a Virginia county have closed all local schools following a backlash over one teacher’s homework assignment on Islamic calligraphy. As News Leader reported, world geography teacher Cheryl LaPorte this week asked her students at Riverheads High School to copy an Islamic statement of faith, or shahada, to understand firsthand the artistic complexity of calligraphy. Translated from Arabic, the oath reads, “There is no God but Allah. Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” Upon learning of the assignment, some upset parents accused LaPorte of indoctrinating their students and contacted the school, demanding the administration fire her. As the news spread, emails and calls came in from beyond the county, leading to a complete shutdown “based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution,” says a release issued today. It also clarifies that the community faces no specific threat.

1995 edition of the World Religions workbook by Teacher Created Materials, Inc. (click to enlarge)

According to News Leader, many of the outraged parents — who are Christian — said LaPorte was “violating children’s religious beliefs.” LaPorte, however, did not personally draft the one-page lesson, which came from a workbook titled “World Religions,” published by Teacher Created Materials, Inc. in 1995. The lesson introduces calligraphy as an art form before inviting students to practice it, in order to give them “an idea of [its] artistic complexity.”

On Tuesday night, over 100 people gathered at a forum at a local church to protest the assignment. The organizer, outraged parent Kimberly Herndon, led the discussion, noting that she wanted to take the case as far as the Supreme Court.

“If my truth cannot be spoken in schools, I don’t want false doctrine spoken in schools,” she said. “That’s what keeps it even across the board.

“[LaPorte] gave up the Lord’s time,” she continued. “She gave it up and gave it to Mohammed.”

Virginia’s Department of Education and Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond reviewed the assignment and found that it remains within state standards. In a statement, Bond reiterated that the directions only asked students to write the calligraphy for comprehension purposes:

When they study a geographic region, students study the religion and written language of the region. Consequently, students learn about Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, among others … 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. … The students in the class will engage in similar calligraphy and drawing assignments when they study China, its unique written language and the yin and yang (a traditional symbol in Taoism and Confucianism).

LaPorte still has her job, but the school is arranging a board meeting on January 7 to host further discussions. Meanwhile, a group on Facebook called “SUPPORT LAPORTE” has emerged in solidarity with the teacher; on its page, students, alumni, parents, and others beyond the immediate community are posting messages of support. This morning, LaPorte’s daughter, Kacey LaPorte Bunch, posted:

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.’

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