Paul Gordon Collier- 50 staff members from the Lebanon School District recently attended an in-service workshop that included attending a worship service at a local Muslim mosque, the Lebanon Valley Mosque.
The workshop was sponsored by tax payer dollars. It was not a mandatory workshop. It was held on an in-service day.
The school district held the workshop so that teachers would understand the religion of some of the new students in their district that come from Muslim homes.
Teachers and Staff who participated visited the Lebanon Valley mosque. They were given a lecture on Islamic beliefs and also attended a prayer service in the afternoon.
This was the second year in a row that the workshop was run. Fred Shattls, English as a Second Language Department head in the district, organized both workshops.
The workshop was led this year by Mohamed Omar, who previously served the district as a teacher’s aide, and also translated Arabic for the district. Omar was the previous president of the mosque the staff visited. Currently, Omar is a case worker for the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia. He emigrated to the US from Egypt in 2000.
The School District’s Superintendent, Marianne Bartley, also attended the workshop, along with other top level administrators.
The school district currently has 87 Muslim students. Shattls stated the Lebanon Daily News, “We have so many students from different Hispanic countries, but slowly but surely the Arabic population is growing. With Hispanics you have the language differences and certainly cultural differences, but there are similarities in their religious practices. Of course, the Arab language and the religion are very much different, but we are learning that there are also many similarities.”
“The goal of my speech or lecture is to break the ice, to break the barriers between not just teachers but between any American and those with Muslim background,” Omar said.
One of the teachers, Lara Book, told the Lebanon Daily News,”It’s important that we educate ourselves about cultures that are different from our own and that we try to eliminate some misunderstandings. And any way that I can communicate with my students, especially the ESL ones, that makes it more meaningful or easier, it is a vital tool for us.
Book continued, “Basically, although our cultures are different, the fundamentals of them are similar and we all want the same things: happiness for our families, health, and success. Although we might go about finding those things in our lives differently, from a cultural standpoint, we all want the same thing.”
While the staff did attend the prayer service, it does not appear, from the video, that the staff participated in the service. While the mosque worshippers participated in the prayer, the staff sat or stood on the sides and at the back of the room, observing but not participating.
Supporters applaud the decision of the school district to learn about Muslim culture so they can better serve the 87 students in their district. The fact that the staff did not actually participate in the service, for supporters, keeps the school district from crossing the ‘separation of church and state’ line.
Some critics point out, on a resource level, that 50 staff spending the whole day, and getting paid for it, to learn about a religion that only 87 students share was a waste of taxpayer dollars. They argue that the staff could have easily read about Islam online for free, from multiple sources.
Still other critics believe that even though the staff did not participate in the service, the fact they actually attended a Muslim service, on tax paper dollars, is a clear violation of separation of church and state.
The school district has offered no workshops to help staff understand any other religion other than Islam.
What do you think? If your school district held a similar workshop to attend a Catholic service would you find that acceptable? Did this school district cross the line? Or did it stay within the line of separation of church and state? Did the school district waste resources, tax payer dollars, or was this a good investment for being able to help the 87 Muslim kids?