Furor over Arabic assignment leads Virginia school district to close Friday

A Virginia county closed all of its schools Friday because of intense backlash over a class assignment about Islam, with some parents alleging that their children were being subjected to Muslim indoctrination and educators emphasizing the importance of exposing U.S. students to the world’s fastest-growing religion.

A high school geography teacher in rural Augusta County asked students to try their hand at writing the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy. The task, community reaction to it, and a sudden influx of outrage from around the country — including angry emails, phone calls and threats to put the teacher’s head on a stake — led the school district to close rather than risk disruption or violence.

The county, in the Shenandoah valley west of Charlottesville, Va., is the latest to wrestle with how Islam should be portrayed in the classroom and how students should learn about it. It’s a subject that has become increasingly fraught as concerns about Islamophobia have grown alongside fears of extremist violence and terrorism.

During the same week that Los Angeles and New York school systems debated whether to close due to emailed threats of attack, Augusta County School District officials closed despite having no specific threat of harm to students. In a statement posted on the school district’s website, officials said they were concerned about the “tone and content” of the messages they had received.

“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,” the statement says.

Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher said the superintendent and the school board decided to close the 10,000-student school system Friday after district officials and the Riverheads High School teacher who gave the assignment received emails that seemed to increase in volume and vitriol as the week wore on. Most emails and messages assailed the school and the teacher for “indoctrinating” students to Islam, and some referenced violence generally.

Fisher said he saw messages that called for the teacher to be fired and to “put her head on a stake.” Photos of beheaded bodies also were sent to the Riverheads principal. In a news release, the superintendent also said people indicated that they were planning protests at school buildings and that “some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials.”