Depending on whom you ask, the Islamic Saudi Academy is a radical school teaching a hate-filled version of Islam, a caring place to get a top-notch multicultural education or the latest in a string of traffic threats for residents of Popes Head Road.
Dozens of speakers engaged in a three-hour debate Monday evening over the academy's teachings and the proposed expansion of its Fairfax Station campus.
The academy has owned the campus, once the site of the Fairfax Christian School, for 25 years and now has kindergarten through second-grade classes there, with older students attending classes at another campus, a former county school building in Alexandria. School officials want to build new classroom buildings and sports facilities for up to 500 students at the Popes Head campus.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors deferred its decision on the expansion until Aug. 3.
Opponents of the expansion generally fall into two categories — the school's immediate neighbors who are concerned about traffic safety on Popes Head Road, and residents of the county and the region who believe the school's teachings represent a threat to America.
Speakers in the latter category called the school "the enemy of everything this country stands for" and a "radical training camp." They claim that the school teaches a radical version of Islam and cite as evidence the actions of two graduates of the academy who were later linked to terrorist activities.
Numerous teachers, students and parents tried to paint a very different picture, that of a normal American high school that teaches tolerance, promotes community service and prepares students to go on to Ivy League universities. They said it is unfair to label the whole school based on the actions of one or two graduates.
Neighbors of the school site say the two-lane Popes Head Road, with its hills and sharp curves, is already plagued with cut-through traffic going between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway. Many described witnessing numerous crashes, some of them fatal, and said they are afraid that adding more school buses and possibly teenage drivers into the mix will create more problems.
"Our mailman has twice been rear-ended while delivering our mail. … A car flipped upside down into our pond. Another car flipped upside down into the creek," said longtime resident Hazel Raphburn, calling a school expansion a "disaster waiting to happen."
The academy's staff said they have experience in managing traffic associated with the school and have pledged that, except in cases in which a student is arriving late to school, all students will be required to use buses. The school would also add turn lanes into the school entrance.
"We will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our students and staff," said Dana Nicholas, an assistant principal at the school. "Give us, and especially our teenagers, a chance to show that we can be good neighbors at our facility at Popes Head."
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), whose district includes the school, said it is unfortunate that the debate over the school's teachings has overshadowed the concerns of the surrounding neighborhood.
"I am going to make sure that doesn't get lost," Herrity said. "Those are the people I represent."
Hundreds of neighbors have signed a petition opposing the expansion and all of the nearby homeowners associations are against it.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Herrity said the application was improved during the Planning Commission process, but that it still has "a way to go to address the concerns of the residents on Popes Head Road."