A spat between parents and administrators over a Seminole County high school history lesson in Islam has simmered into a minor cause célèbre for online critics.
Ron Wagner of Longwood complained to a local TV station that his 15-year-old son was required to recite an Islamic prayer as part of a world history class at Lyman High School. The students also had to make an Islamic prayer rug as a homework assignment, according to Wagner, who said lessons like that don’t belong in public schools.
"There’s a difference between teaching of the significance or the impact of a religion and teaching the specific tenets of the religion," Wagner told WFTV on Feb 9, 2015.
Blogs and right-leaning media seized on the report, decrying the lessons as attempts to indoctrinate students.
One blog, DownTrend.com, featured a post on Feb. 12 with the headline, "Students In Fla. High School Forced To Recite Islamic Prayer, Make Prayer Rugs."
We don’t mean to pick on this one site -- because there are many, many other places that have reblogged the report -- and the writer did update the story after we asked him some questions. But the headline encapsulated the alleged events that have outraged so many people. Were students forced to recite an Islamic prayer and make prayer rugs at Lyman High School? PolitiFact Florida did our own homework.
Wagner met with Seminole County Public Schools administrators on Oct. 17, 2014, to discuss concerns about his son’s 10th grade world history class. Wagner alleged the class had been told to recite the first of the five pillars of Islam as printed in their textbook -- "There is no god, but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God." The prayer, known as the shahada, is an affirmation of faith among Muslims.
Wagner also complained about 100 pages missing from his son’s history book and assignments to make Islamic prayer rugs and watch videos about Muslims. He said the teacher had contacted his son directly about the assignments via text messages, without his parents’ knowledge.
Wagner’s wife, Lisa Huston, told PolitiFact Florida she and her husband believed the school district was favoring Islam, and that the missing pages were possibly removed deliberately. The textbook, published by Prentice Hall, has been singled out by some Florida and national groups for allegedly being pro-Islam, although it is approved by districts nationwide.
District executive director of secondary education Michael Blasewitz conducted an investigation in October to determine if Wagner’s allegations were legitimate. Blasewitz concluded the teacher hadn’t violated any rules.
Blasewitz repeated to PolitiFact Florida that the state has included Islam in its world history guidelines, and that Judaism and Christianity both are taught during the sixth grade, which the Florida Department of Education confirmed.
You can read the entire district investigation report, but here are the highlights.
Text messages: Wagner’s son had enrolled in Remind 101, in which students sign up for a third-party text messaging service for teachers to contact pupils about homework or class events. Blasewitz said parents were allowed to opt in.
Missing textbook pages: The district found that 68 of the year-old textbooks lost pages from a binding error. Teachers had reported the problem, but Blasewitz said the school didn’t tell the district. Pearson, the publisher, replaced all the faulty copies, he said. (The missing chapters do include more information on Judaism and Christianity in the context of earlier civilizations.)
Videos: The students watched short videos, including a TED Talk about stereotypes featuring an unidentified Iranian-American comedian. While the video did not violate guidelines, the district said a more straightforward selection should be made in future classes.
Prayer rugs: Students were told to create prayer rugs, but the lesson was an assignment about Islamic art and not worship. The students were told they could incorporate any religious icons they wanted, as long as they observed Islamic artistic values, including no depictions of people or animals. The district said the assignment could be seen as controversial and recommended that a different art assignment "would be more appropriate."
Prayer recitation: Blasewitz interviewed 10 students in the teacher’s two world history classes, and only one remembered the whole class being made to recite the prayer. Other students recalled following the book together in class, and the teacher gave extra credit to students who volunteered to read aloud. The teacher may have written the pillars of Islam on the board, they said, but did not make the students say any of them.
Huston insisted to us that at least one other student in a different class period remembered an event similar to her son’s version of events, but Blasewitz said no other complaints had been filed.
DownTrend.com’s headline read, "Students In Fla. High School Forced To Recite Islamic Prayer, Make Prayer Rugs." This makes it sound as if students were being indoctrinated into a religion, and that's not the case.
Instead, students were studying the religion of Islam as part of a world history class. According to a district investigation, pupils were assigned to make prayer rugs as an art assignment. The district recommended a different art assignment be made from now on.
As for reciting the pillars of Islam in class, only one student complained his class was made to read the shahada. The investigation cited a notable lack of evidence that anyone was forced to recite a prayer.
The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.