Administrators pushed back Thursday evening against recent allegations that the Rutherford County Board of Education has been approached about providing special accommodations to Muslim students.
Kevin Fisher discusses concerns regarding the influence of the Muslim community in schools July 19, 2012, during a Rutherford County Board of Education meeting in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
“As a public school system, predominantly on an annual basis, we receive information from the Jewish and Christian communities, in addition to other groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, reminding us what students’ rights are,” said Don Odom, director of Rutherford County Schools.
“That does not mean we plan to institute new policies and procedures,” he said.
Board officials initially denied receiving an e-mail containing guidelines for dealing with Muslim students from Abdou Kattih, who serves as one of the senior members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
During the monthly meeting, however, Odom acknowledged Kattih did contact the board, but he contended the confusion was simply an oversight because the incident happened four years ago.
“No one here remembered (receiving the e-mail),” said Odom, who began his tenure as director earlier this month.
Prior to Odom being selected for the position, Harry Gill served as director for more than a decade.
“To my knowledge, there has not been anything brought to this board as having anything to do with the Muslim community,” he said, “and there is nothing on the policy committee agenda concerning the Islamic Center.”
When asked about the issue, Saleh Sbenaty said any information sent to the Board of Education was not done on behalf of the Islamic Center, rather Kattih contacted administrators for personal reasons.
“The Islamic Center did not send this brochure,” said Sbenaty, an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “However, even if we did submit something, it is not a mandatory guide. It is an educational brochure meant to inform teachers about certain Muslim practices, if needed.”
Any such notion that the local Muslim community would try to force taxpayers to pay for special treatment is ridiculous, he said.
“We would create a private school before ever asking for any such accommodations,” Sbenaty said. “Why would we require an entire school system to abide by our traditions? These smear campaigns are fueling unnecessary fear and hate based on lies – it is sad, very sad.”
More than 100 residents packed the Board of Education headquarters to express concerns about the e-mail, as well as reports that administrators were considering different textbooks that would be approved by the Muslim community, after learning of the issue from some radio broadcasters.
“We believe it is inappropriate to bring an ideology into the classroom that could foster some element of segregation … like the separate classes that have been proposed for boys and girls,” said Kevin Fisher, one of the plaintiffs who sued the Rutherford County Commission on the grounds it failed to provide adequate public notice to residents prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center.
“We do not want to see one ideology receive preferential treatment over other religions,” he said. “They do have a right, as individual parents, to express concerns. If we are going to follow the ideology that Islam is a religion, then the Muslim community should have to follow the same laws and regulations as other religious groups.”
Others said they are worried that Muslims have targeted Murfreesboro as part of a larger plan to infiltrate the country, noting they disapproved of board administrators and educators participating in an Islamic awareness education program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice last year.
“We are dealing with a worldwide situation, and Murfreesboro just happens to be the city they chose,” said Dr. Norman Saliba, a retired surgeon from Murfreesboro. “Why they chose this city, I do not know.”
Just as communists have done for hundreds of years, the Muslim community is practicing patient gradualism, he said.
“They can present themselves as someone entirely different from the truth, and the person who does not know their plans will fall into their trap,” Saliba said.
Odom defended those who participated in the program, saying it was held as a learning session, not a coercive plan to implement new policies, and it was only intended to inform attendees about various Muslim traditions and practices.
Even so, if something was submitted or a change in policy suggested, there is a process that the Board of Education would follow, he said.
“If the policy committee recommends a change, there are two additional readings before policy changes are approved,” Odom said. “Nothing is ever done in haste.”
If the School Board is going to participate in an awareness program for the Muslim religion, then there should be one for the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu religions, Fisher said.
He added the school system should be focused on improving teaching standards, not inserting religion into the classroom.
“Leave the religion to the parents,” Fisher said.