School district bans drawings of religious leaders after Acton students draw Muhammad
by Brenda Gazzar
An Acton school district superintendent said Wednesday he has banned depicting religious leaders after middle school students drew images on a history worksheet of Muhammad, which is forbidden in Islam.
Following a parent's complaint and media inquiries, Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Superintendent Brent Woodard told a reporter Tuesday he would consult with an expert on Islam to determine whether a vocabulary handout given to a 7th-grade history class at High Desert School in Acton was offensive. The worksheet, Vocabulary Pictures: The Rise of Islam, listed words such as Quran, Mecca, Bedouins and Muhammad with spaces for students to draw pictures or images related to those words.
"I have directed all staff to permanently suspend the practice of drawing or depiction of any religious leader," Woodard said Wednesday afternoon in a text message. "I am certain this teacher did not intend to offend anyone and in fact was simply teaching respect and tolerance for all cultures."
Palmdale resident Melinda Van Stone said she was "very upset" when her 12-year-old son brought home the assignment about two weeks ago.
"It's not appropriate to have our children go to school and learn how to insult a religious group," said Van Stone, a chiropractor who declined to state her or her son's religion.
Van Stone said the principal and district officials told her that the worksheet came from state-approved curriculum. But on Tuesday, High Desert School Principal Lynn David said the vocabulary worksheet is not a part of a textbook or other state-approved curriculum but is supplemental material.
The principal, who joined the school in July, said she did not know if the teacher had created the worksheet himself or from where he had it gotten it.
The boy has been sent to the office and is given an alternative assignment during class discussions on Islam, which Van Stone agreed to but now feels is unnecessary. Van Stone said David told her that she needs to write down which state standards she objects to before the boy can be back in class full time. The mother, who said her son has been sent to the office about six times, said she feels like he is being punished for her complaints.
In Islam, images of prophets, whether of Muhammad, Jesus or Moses, are not allowed since people may worship these images, which is forbidden, said Muzammil Siddiqi, an Islamic scholar and chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.
"Muslims do not draw the image of the Prophet Muhammad out of respect for him," he said. Educators "should be sensitive to this Muslim position that young Muslim students would be reluctant to do it. ... If the teacher doesn't ask anyone to do that, it would be better."
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad forbade the creation of the image of any human being in an effort to discourage idolatry, said Berj Boyajian, professor of Comparative Islamic Law at USC. However, in today's practice, the sensitivity is concentrated on Muhammad, he said.
David could not say how long the worksheet had been in use or how many Muslims, if any, were in the history class of about 33 students. Only Van Stone complained about the assignment, she said.
Woodard said it's common practice for teachers to bring in creative ideas and instructional strategies that support state-approved content but are not board approved. David, he said, is in charge of all material used in the classroom to ensure it aligns with requirements.
School District President Ed Porter said Tuesday there should be more sensitivity.
"I think it's something that should be caught in advance," he said, noting the teacher of the class is "very tolerant" and inclusive.
A message left for the teacher at the school was not returned.
It would be better for the district to stick to material that is formally approved by the state or district, Fatima Dadabhoy, a senior civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles, said Tuesday.
They should "use that material rather than running the risk of using inaccurate or offensive material," she said.
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