Residents on both sides of controversy give school board members an earful
BY ASHLEY THOMAS
Fifty speakers were assigned speaking positions at the opening of the Volusia County School Board meeting Monday afternoon. But by night’s end, more than 80 residents had spoken on a controversial textbook in Florida schools.
“I may not be an academic, or any part of the KKK, but I feel I trump all that,” Port Orange resident Sheryl Taft stated as she began her four-minute allotment before the board.
“What I am is a parent of a student in a Volusia County high school,” she continued.
Taft was among a considerable smaller group of individuals present at the meeting who did not want the Prentice Hall World History textbook to be allowed in the classroom because of a single chapter on Islam.
A formal decision was not made on the future use of the textbook Monday night. School board member Linda Costello pushed for a more thorough review of the book while Candace Lankford, Stan Schmidt, Dianna Smith and Ida Wright were in agreement with keeping the book in the classroom. Wright reminded all in attendance that we have a “responsibility to our young people.”
The chapter covers such topics as art, literature and architecture of Muslim civilizations from the years 622-1629. The text includes discussion on social and economic advances, international trade networks, the Quran and the five pillars of Islam.
Taft proposed that the elected school board add a discussion and review of the book to a future agenda. “I take personal offense, as we all should, and am disgusted by those that call us book burners, haters and bigots, by those radical groups of people who oppose us expressing our concerns.”
As reported in last week’s Daytona Times, the regularly scheduled school board meeting on Nov. 5 was rescheduled to Nov. 18 for security reasons after the district was contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice just prior to the beginning of the board meeting at 4 p.m., according to Nancy H. Wait, spokesperson for Volusia County Schools.
The rescheduled meeting filled the room to capacity as well as the overflow room while even more spilled to corridors outside the building.
Citizens raising concerns over the book initially stated that there were too many pages dedicated to Islam and only one page on Christianity. Those sentiments shifted at the meeting with concerns being that the content of the chapter was biased and omitted important historical data. Data some citizens voiced to include a ”watered-down version” and “omission of” violence imposed by and among Muslims.
Tolerance and knowledge
But advocates of the book say that those opposed to it feel that way out of fear and a lack of understanding.
A theme of tolerance was repeated by more than a dozen Volusia County residents and those in favor of the book say it gives children the opportunity to be more open-minded and more knowledgeable about the history of the world.
“It breaks my heart to think what type of community will my children grow in where people will protest and rally with hateful slogans demonizing my entire faith and community when they know nothing about it,” said Hassan Shibly of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Dr. Sylvia Perkins of DeLand, a teacher of religious studies, brought further insight to the board when she explained her history with the subject.
“Having taught biblical religion and Far Eastern religion as well as courses on Christianity and Judaism to some extent, what I have found in my years of teaching, particularly at introductory levels in college and I suspect it’s even worse at lower levels, is that students in those courses are appallingly ignorant of their own religious positions not to speak of other religious positions,” she stated.
“These were children who often grew up in very religious homes. Our religious communities as well as our schools have not done a very good job of educating our children about the world’s religions and this is important to include in the curriculum.”
Muslim student speaks out
In at least one DeLand High School class, students are learning about Islam. Fifteen-year-old sophomore Amira Shaw, a Muslim student wearing a traditional headscarf called a hijab, shared challenges she overcame during that class where she was able to discuss Islam among her peers.
“My teacher Mr. Weaver gave me a voice that I didn’t have before. I came out of my shell, no longer feeling afraid or ashamed of who I am. As an American, don’t take this opportunity away from me and other Muslim girls,” she pleaded.
“Mr. Weaver encouraged me to come forward today to speak on his and my classmates’ behalf. The day after the question about the textbook came up, my class took a vote if the chapter on Islam should be taken out. Not one person voted to remove Islam from the textbook.”
‘I’m not a bigot’
Tony Ledbetter of the Republican Party of Volusia County, one of the residents who helped to organize the protest against the use of the textbook, stated Monday night, “I’m not a bigot, I’m not ignorant, I’m not afraid, I’m not a hater. I’m not interested in banning books, I’m not interested in burning books, I’m not interested in censuring books,” he stated.
Ledbetter was among 100 protesters who arrived at the Nov. 5 meeting before it was canceled.
In a press release released earlier this month, Ledbetter stated, “Citizens of Volusia County have expressed concern that the history presented in this textbook is not truthful and is biased in favor of Islam at the expense of Christianity and Judaism. Our concern is about history being taught accurately in our Volusia County Public Schools.”
Ledbetter argued Monday that the textbook needed immediate attention from the school board. “It is your job to respond to the concerns of the citizens and take some action once you learn the possible errors and the lack of balance in the textbook in the students’ hands,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody. I don’t hate the Muslims, but they’ve got to tell the truth in the textbook.”