Officials had been "receiving voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area," the school system said. According to CNN, the "tone and content" were nasty and directed at a world geography class. Yes, you read that correctly -- a geography class.
The threats aimed at this class were apparently so serious that the sheriff deployed more officers to county schools, school entrances were guarded and authorities began monitoring communications. Then all the schools in the county shut down.
Here's how this all happened. A high school teacher was teaching world geography and part of the course covers the major world religions. Makes sense, right? Given the globally connected world, then surely being educated on the basics of all the major religions is helpful in the "real world." The class had reportedly
already covered Christianity, Judaism and it was about to cover Hinduism, Buddhism.
But a homework assignment on Islam ignited rage.
The teacher handed out a homework assignment from a standard workbook on world religions. It was a drawing assignment on "the artistic complexity of calligraphy." The assignment read: The homework assignment aimed to give students "an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."
"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 illustrative classical Arabic phrase was the basic statement in Islam. It translated to: "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah."
When the homework came home, some parents were furious. Many residents of the town met at a church. Fear seemed to spread like a prairie fire. The school is indoctrinating our kids in Islam! An avalanche of calls and emails rolled into the school.
The school responded. They issued a statement to calm these irrational fears: "Neither of these lessons, nor any other lessons 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." And they went even further and said they would use, "A different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy in the future."
But that wasn't enough to appease the angry masses whose irrational fears and anger had now spun wildly out of control. The threats reportedly continued to mount against the world geography class -- threats perceived as serious enough to warrant shutting down the entire school system, all school activities, all sports, all everything.
The threat in Augusta County, Virginia, is very real. But the threat there is not a homework assignment about Islam. It's ignorance. Ignorance shut down the schools. Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds hate. Hate breeds violence. And violence is presumably what was feared as schools were closed on the recommendation of law enforcement following the flood of "hateful" and "profane" calls, emails.
What is the purpose of a high school education anyway? I asked that question of a dozen folks sitting here in the airport with me in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The answers were startling similar:
"To prepare you for the real world."
Of course, the real world is filled with over 7 billion people, changing technology, multiple religions, diverse cultures and it is getting more connected every single day. If education is supposed to "prepare" you for it, maybe it's smart to teach you a little about it. Besides, it is only through education, understanding and empathy that we will find solutions and thrive in life, regardless of personal religious belief.
For those Christians who assembled in fear and buried the school in an avalanche of fear and threats, it's also sad. As a Christian, I can only imagine how weak your own religious faith must be if you fear that a calligraphy assignment could change your child's faith.
If indoctrination is your concern, perhaps you should seek counsel about the strength of your own belief from your pastor, instead of preaching ignorance and fear at the principal.