On October 17th, students from Metro Nashville Meigs Middle Magnet School visited the Islamic Center of Nashville (ICN) where Dina Sirois, the mosque’s operations director, told them that they would “talk about beliefs and practices in Islam.”
The Tennessee Star contacted Ms. Anna Shepherd, Chairman of the Metro Nashville School Board about the audio recording of the presentation given to the students, and asked the following questions:
- how to find a copy or link to the MNPS policy that complies with the  Tennessee law [regarding inclusion of religion in local curriculum] and whether public notice and comment related to the adoption of the Metro policy was provided as required by the state law
- how to access information required by part (c) of the state law [a complete syllabus that includes information regarding major assignments and field trips]
- confirmation as to whether MNPS considers that the provisions in the [state law] also apply to guest speakers on and off school grounds during field trips
Ms. Shepherd responded as follows, explaining:
Please see the policies below in regard to religious education. I hope these are helpful.
Sixth and seventh grade students study a number of religions as part of state’s approved Social Studies Standards. Sixth grade concentrates on Christianity while seventh grade includes Islam among other faith traditions. Those standards can be viewed on the State’s website under Social Studies standards for seventh grade. Parents had the option to opt out of this particular field trip for their child and were given plenty of notice. MNPS has a procedure in place that allows parents to remove their child from a particular aspect of the state’s curriculum standards.
Regarding the introductory speech to the students/parents, she [the ICN speaker] was addressing any misconceptions the students/parents might have had in the context of the standards.
State Rep. Matthew Hill, chief sponsor of the 2016 law said it was based on over a year of work with parents, teachers and school administrators because of “alleged and actual instances of what parents and some teachers felt was religious indoctrination” and that the law which was intended to draw a line between teaching about religion as opposed to using the information to indoctrinate and proselytize a religion to students.
“What is acceptable is talking about it [religion] from a historical context. What is not acceptable is proselytizing,” Hill said.
When questioned how teaching doctrinal beliefs like the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus wasn’t indoctrination, Rep. Hill explained that the line gets crossed if after that discussion, students are told “put your faith in him and you’ll be forgiven your sins.”
At the ICN, Sirois told students at the outset that “[w]e’re trying to give you information so you can leave here today with yet another little piece of your brain that has some new little storage compartment that has been filled with Islam stuff and then you take that on with your life and your faith journey.”
As reported by The Star, Sirois’ presentation was, at best, misleading for being incomplete on key issues she chose to address, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the meaning of jihad, raising the question of why a complete and relevant explanation was not provided to the students.
According to Ms. Shepherd’s response, parents could have chosen to opt out their student from this field trip, but could parents have known or had an expectation that incomplete and misleading information would be provided in the presentation?
With regard to field trips and the MNPS policy required by Tennessee’s 2016 law, Ms. Shepherd responded:
Regarding the possible trips to other churches, there is a plan for two additional field trips during this school year:
1. Catholic Cathedral regarding the Middle Ages, “Rise of the Catholic Church”
2. Episcopal Church regarding the Protestant Reformation.
Regarding the policy question:
We have policies that are functioning and in place that are in compliance with the law. We are in the process of updating all our Board policies which number in the hundreds (actually around 275 if you are asked for a specific number). This particular policy is in que to be voted on in April 2018 and will be effective immediately upon board approval. All updated and renewed policies will have an opportunity for public comment.
After a review of Metro Nashville Public Schools policies that address religion, it appears that the only policy currently in place is IM4.140 which states the following:
Purpose and Philosophy
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (“MNPS”) will comply with existing state and federal laws regarding religion and religious expression in public schools. MNPS will maintain official neutrality regarding sectarian religious issues, according to the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.
MNPS will not endorse specific religious practices or doctrines, nor coerce participation in religious activity. Among other things, school administrators and teachers will not organize, encourage, or engage in prayer exercises in the classroom or at school-related events. Furthermore, school officials will not permit student religious speech to turn into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students.
MNPS will not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. MNPS will not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity.
MNPS will take all reasonable steps to resolve disputes over religious issues in schools promptly, equitably, and with civility at the lowest possible level. Procedures for addressing a religions violation are addressed IMp 4.113.
Despite Metro’s stated policy that it will “comply with existing state and federal laws,” a review of the MNPS website and the Meigs Middle Magnet School website did not show any of the information required by the Tennessee 2016 law, nor did Ms. Shepherd answer the question as to where the information could be accessed.
The 2016 law specifically requires that:
Each LEA shall make publicly available a syllabus for all grade six (6) through twelve (12) social studies, math, and English language arts courses. The syllabus shall at a minimum include:
(1) A course calendar that includes standards objectives and topics covered;
(2) Major assignments and field trips; and
(3) Procedures for parental access to instructional materials in accordance with 49-6-7003.
The Star also contacted Dr. Underwood, principal of Meigs Middle Magnet School, as well as the 6th and 7th grade social studies teachers at the school and requested a copy of the opt out form, information as to who had arranged this field trip, and information on the number of students who elected to opt out from the visit to the ICN.
Neither Dr. Underwood nor any of the Meigs Middle Magnet School teachers have responded.
Rashed Fakhruddin, president of the Islamic Center of Nashville provided “in-service” information to Metro Nashville social studies teachers at the beginning of the current school year. Fakhruddin is a founding member of the Tennessee American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), which in 2012 established an Islamic speaker’s bureau with training using ING’s prepared presentations, and has a formal affiliation with the Islamic Networks Group (ING). Middle and high school students are among the audiences targeted by ING:
Similar to Ms. Shepherd’s characterization of the ICN speaker “addressing any misconceptions the students/parents might have had in the context of the standards,” ING also believes that its outreach to middle and high schools will correct “inadequate and biased” teaching resources, supplement the curriculum in the context of the standards and “[p]rovid[e] accurate information about Islam and Muslims directly to the students.”
Early on, ING disclosed that it was receiving funding from the Tides Foundation which has received millions of dollars from the George Soros Open Society Institute.