Passions were high at a school board meeting this week in Sullivan County, Tennesee, while parents voiced their concerns over a curriculum for students that features the teachings of Islam. Among the parents on hand was Michelle Edmisten, whose child is a 7th-grade student at the Bluff City Middle School. Edmisten gave a passionate speech at the board meeting on October 5.
“My child's personal religious beliefs were violated,” said Edmisten. She said that her daughter received zeros on a section in an assignment on Islam after her teacher did not allow her to opt out of the curriculum and standards to perform alternative work instead. Edmisten said at the meeting, “Those are zeros that we proudly took and we will not compromise.” Her remarks elicited applause. She then called for the removal of the textbook that offended her, while calling for the school district to “stand with the moral compass” upon which she said the United States was founded and to “take back our families, schools, and our country.”
Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes said the school system is exploring a religious accommodation option since there is no “opt-out” allowed in Tennessee, according to Rafalowski.
School board member Mark Ireson has begun a process to remove the offending 7th social studies and history textbook. At the end of the board meeting, he made a motion to remove it immediately, “because it does not represent the values of the county.” “I will not give up this fight,” said Edmisten, who was the sole commenter from the public. “Right this wrong tonight.”
School officials said there is already in place a textbook removal policy, 4.403, that must be followed. Parents must fill out a form, then a committee must be created to discuss the matter that would eventually be placed before the board as a whole.
Board chairman Hughes was unapologetic about the involvement of the system’s teachers in the controversy. “We support our faculty and our staff,” said Hughes, who added, “This debate over the textbook has nothing to do with the faculty.” “It’s not age-appropriate,” Edmisten said of teaching Islam to 7th graders.
Edmisten disagreed, saying. “I’m very happy (with Ireson's motion). I’'m very unhappy about the board for apologizing to the staff because it is a teacher’s discretion,” Edmisten said. “That's why I'm going to continue the fight. 2019 is too long to wait.” Edmisten was referring to 7th-grade curriculum standards that are now in draft before the state Board of Education. The draft would delete that portion of the curriculum that refers to the history of the Middle East and the emergence of Islam from 400 to 1500 AD but would retain references to Islam in other sections. Hughes said that unless standards change for 2019-20, Sullivan County schools must follow the standards “whether we like it or whether we don’t.” Christian pastors and parents have complained for more than a year about the curriculum incorporating Islam.