A Virginia school system has decided to close schools Friday after a high school geography assignment on world religions led to allegations of Islamic indoctrination and a slew of angry emails and phone calls.
Augusta County School District officials said that there had been no specific threat of harm to students. But in a statement posted on the school district's website, officials said they were concerned about the "tone and content of these communications."
"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.
Superintendent Eric Bond did not respond to questions about why he canceled school given the lack of a specific threat, or about whether he considered the original assignment improper. Members of the school board also did not respond to requests for comment.
The school district serves about 10,000 students in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley west of Charlottesville, Va., about 150 miles from Washington, D.C.
A geography teacher at the district's Riverheads High in Staunton, Va., gave an assignment asking students to try their hand at calligraphy by copying a statement in Arabic, according to the Staunton News Leader.
It was the Muslim statement of faith, according to the newspaper: "There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."
The assignment was meant to give students a sense for the art of calligraphy, according to the newspaper, and the teacher did not have the students translate the statement into English, require students to recite the statement, or say they believed in it.
But some parents were outraged at what they saw as an attempt to proselytize Islam in a public school. One parent's post on Facebook accusing the school of religious indoctrination caught the attention of national media, triggering a community meeting and an avalanche of messages to the school system.
"These children were deceived when they were told it was calligraphy," the parent, Kimberly Herndon, told NBC29 television. "This is not calligraphy, this is a language."
Students were also invited to try on a hijab, or head scarf.
In the statement posted on the school district website, officials said that "no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student's religious belief."
Students will continue learning about world religions as required by state academic standards, they said. But in the future, students will practice calligraphy using a different sample that has nothing to do with Islam.