Officials at Rochester's World School of Inquiry spent last week fielding dozens of calls from parents angry about a "World Hijab Day" event that encouraged girls to wear the Muslim religious head covering.
Sophomore Eman Muthana wears a hijab to school and wrote a letter to principal Sheela Webster asking if the school can put on its own World Hijab Day at the school last Friday,WHAM reports.
Webster approved the event – designed to educate students about the religious purposes behind the hijab – but did not inform parents until after the media reports of the event sparked backlash online, and angry calls to the school, according to WHEC.
"As a high school teacher for over 30 years, let me say that this is wrong on so many levels," Jim Farnholz wrote, according to the news site.
"All religions are taught in our global studies classes. That being said, that is where understanding, tolerance and the good and bad of religion and history are taught. This, however, is a clear violation of separation of church and state."
WHEC reports teachers brought in about 150 scarves in on Friday and wrapped up volunteers before the first bell. The school set up tables in the cafeteria, where girls tried on a hijab and boys were given carnations for support, according to WHEC, which described the event as "student run."
"We wanted them to experience it and feel how we feel," Muthana, originally of Yemen, told the site. "I just feel proud that I'm sharing my culture."
"I love that we're having the open conversation. I think that's the first step into making it a more open and tolerant environment. I think this is the perfect school for it," English-as-a-Second-Language teacher Kelly Lalonde told WHAM.
A district spokesman told the site officials consulted with an attorney about the World Hijab Day event, and were advised that "there would be more of a legal issue if the school said no to the event" than to hold lessons on the Muslim scarf.
Regardless, Webster, who also donned a hijab, was adamant the school did not promote religion, but rather cultural acceptance.
"Our perspective in it was not religious – it was really about experiential," she told WHAM. "We are an experiential school; we engage kids in all kinds of activities and projects all of the time, so the perspective of being able to learn what a hijab is, why some women choose to wear it and why some women don't choose to wear it, and we provide the opportunity to experience it; it is well within protocol of experiential learning."
She told WHEC the lessons on the hijab had nothing to do with the Muslim religion, it "was actually around learning about the cloth."
School board president Van Henri White didn't seem to have a problem with the hijab day when he stopped in on the event Friday.
"She's not trying to make anybody else anything other than who they are," White said of Muthana, "but she wants people to accept who she is."
WHEC reporter Brett Davidsen asked: "Does it put any pressure on the kids who don't want to participate – does it put them in an awkward position?"
"I don't know," White replied. "Look around, I don't see that."
Many parents and commenters online were offended, nonetheless.
"What lesson will they wear a Yarmulke in? Or the Christian cross? Or the Hindu turban?" Dan Lane posted. "Funny how it always seems to be the Muslims they learn about, even in Common Core."
"How disgusting and irresponsible for any educator to encourage a child to wear a symbol of oppression, whether it be religious or cultural," Rebecca Sluman wrote.
"Don't you kids dare wear a shirt with the American flag on it, someone WILL be offended," Rick Bentley added.