VERNON -- On a day of mourning for the 3,000 people killed on Sept, 11, 2001, by Islamic terrorists inspired by Osama bin Laden, a middle school social studies teacher allegedly decided to skip that part of the discussion Tuesday and instead teach a fictionalized account of a Muslim boy being picked on because his name is Osama.
School officials thus far have been mostly mum on the matter beyond acknowledging that it was brought to their attention and dealt with internally, but one couple told the New Jersey Herald Wednesday that they are outraged and have since had their daughter pulled out of that teacher's class.
Ed O'Rourke, a former Marine, said he and his wife, Jodi, found out about it almost by accident while having dinner with their daughter, who is in sixth grade, Tuesday evening.
"I thought it was a joke at first," Ed O'Rourke said. "I couldn't believe it."
The story that the teacher had her students read, titled "My Name is Osama," tells a made-up account of an Iraqi immigrant boy named Osama who faces taunts of "terrorist" in school by several students who tell him his mother, who wears a hijab, has "a bag on her head." After pushing back against his tormenters, the boy is suspended from school for fighting.
The story included no mention of the ideology behind those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, which O'Rourke said should have been a part of the class discussion as well.
"It would be like, on a day about the Holocaust, doing a made-up lesson about a boy named Adolf being bullied by Jewish kids and saying we shouldn't blame all Germans -- or don't pick on the poor kid named Adolf on the Jewish holidays," O'Rourke said. "It's grotesque."
O'Rourke said he conveyed his concerns late Tuesday to Glen Meadow Middle School Principal Edwina Piszczek, who forwarded the message to Acting Superintendent Charles McKay.
After being invited to meet with them Wednesday morning, O'Rourke said he came away with a sense that they at least understood his concerns, though he received little in the way of specifics about how they planned to address it.
"They couldn't have been better as far as letting me vent, and agreed that the timing couldn't have been more horrific," O'Rourke said. "They said they were unaware the teacher was planning to do this and that it fell through the cracks, though when I asked if they were planning any disciplinary action against the teacher, they said they weren't sure at this point."
McKay, in a statement late Wednesday, described the meeting as positive but did not elaborate.
"There were concerns expressed by a parent about an article one of our teachers gave out to a class on Tuesday, September 11th," McKay wrote. "I met with our teacher this morning to relay those concerns and then I met with the father to make sure his point of view was heard. Each meeting was civil and instructive."
It was unclear if the Board of Education, which meets tonight at 7, planned to address the concerns.
O'Rourke said he understands the importance of teaching tolerance in a pluralistic society, but said impressionable children also should be given appropriate context.
"I know a lot of firemen and cops who lost family members on 9/11, but unlike the religious extremists who would have no problem blowing all of us up, our society is not going out blaming all Muslims," he said.
"But there's also an ideology of people that causes some people to want to kill us and to not respect women's rights, and that should be taught as well. Instead this teacher was able to influence an entire class with a tainted story made up to show Muslims as victims."
Two years ago, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the New Jersey Herald did a story on how Vernon Township High School teachers were approaching this sensitive topic. Three teachers who were interviewed described efforts to guide students toward a personal connection with the events of that day and how the world had changed in the years since.
No officially designated curriculum exists on the teaching of 9/11, which is mostly left to the discretion of local school districts.
However, New Jersey's social studies standards call for terrorism and its effects to be taught in an age-appropriate manner starting in elementary school.