Facebook post sparks cultural debate

Former trustee alleges students wore turbans during lesson by co-teacher

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COEUR d’ALENE — A former Coeur d’Alene school board member’s recent Facebook rant about a Muslim volunteer speaker at Hayden Meadows Elementary has sparked a cultural debate on Facebook.

“If you don't ask your kids every single day ‘what did you learn at school today?’ you really, really need to,” former Trustee Tom Hamilton posted on Facebook last week.

“This week's Social Studies lesson in a 4th grade classroom in the Coeur d'Alene school district was ‘co-taught’ by the teacher's Muslim gay boyfriend who is currently in the US (from the UAE) so they can get married. The lesson included putting turbans on the students so they wouldn't be ‘scared of’ Muslims.”

Hamilton went on to say a 10th-grade Coeur d'Alene High School English teacher recently told students “with borderline hysteria: ‘If your parents vote for Trump then all the Muslims in the US will end up in internment camps!’"

Contacted about the post on Thursday, Hamilton said he did not intend for the post to be a “witch hunt.” He would not name the teacher involved.

“My entire point is parents need to pay attention,” Hamilton said. “I think this could happen in any classroom.”

Hamilton, who helped lead a conservative takeover of the Coeur d’Alene school board in 2011, completed his term in June 2015 and did not seek re-election. He said he has always felt that personal agendas, especially concerning politics and religion, do not belong in the classroom.

Hamilton did make that point in his Facebook post: “You don't have to agree with my views on Islam or gay marriage but can we please agree that a teacher's personal social and/or political agenda have no place in a public school?” Hamilton wrote. “Our district just can't get out of their own way. Allowing a public school to ‘raise’ your kid is the worst dereliction of duty a parent can achieve.”

Laura Rumpler, communications director for the school district, said the classroom incident that sparked Hamilton’s Facebook post did happen, but not exactly the way Hamilton portrayed it. Hamilton declined to say where he got his information.

“A teacher at Hayden Meadows brought in a guest speaker to his classroom to talk about life in the United Arab Emirates,” Rumpler said. “The teacher followed our district’s protocol and requested permission ahead of time from the school principal.”

Rumpler said third-graders at Hayden Meadows have been participating in a pen pal exchange program with students from that region of the world, so the guest speaker talked about agriculture, climate and differences within the regions.

“These were agreed-upon topics the principal had discussed with the teacher prior, as part of what are appropriate and not appropriate topics for elementary-aged students,” Rumpler added. “The principal and teacher had agreed that the guest speaker would not discuss religion, politics or personal relationships.”

Rumpler said she does not know the relationship status of the teacher involved and does not think it is her place to comment on an employee’s personal life.

She did say the school board has policies that help administrators and teachers understand what is expected of them when discussing academic freedom and bringing guest speakers into a classroom, and they were followed.

“As part of the guest speaker’s presentation, he showed the students the various ways to tie a ghutra,” Rumpler explained. “The way a ghutra is tied shows which region someone is from and is often worn to block the sun and dust.”

A ghutra is one of several names for the traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square piece of cotton or scarf.

Lisa Pica, principal at Hayden Meadows, received one inquiry from a Hayden Meadows parent after that parent read a posting on Facebook about students wearing “turbans” at school as part of a guest speaker presentation.

“This parent came to the school and talked with Ms. Pica,” Rumpler said. “That parent’s primary concern was about safety and the process in which community members and guests who volunteer in our schools are background checked.”

Rumpler said Pica explained the process the speaker went through — the necessary security checks — and how he was approved to be at school to interact with students in a supervised group environment.

“Ms. Pica is aware of two other Hayden Meadows parents asking teachers about the process in which community members and guests who volunteer in our schools are background checked but those parents did not reach out to Principal Pica,” Rumpler added. “Neither the district nor Hayden Meadows have received any other complaints.”

Hamilton also declined to say where he got the information about the 10th-grade English teacher.

“It is so difficult for us to resolve any concerns made by a parent or a student when they are not shared with the school or the district,” Rumpler said. “We have not received any complaints regarding interactions between teachers and students on current events or the upcoming presidential election.”

If a parent or student presents a concern about what is being discussed in a classroom, principals have the ability to ask for more information and work toward addressing the situation, Rumpler said.

“Without information, it’s an uphill challenge to get clarity or understanding,” Rumpler said. “The challenge with the Facebook comment is that it is coming from someone that was not in the class when it happened.”

Rumpler said principals typically remind teachers the classroom is not a place to air their personal political beliefs. However, teachers often lead discussions and facilitate dialogue, especially during an election year where social studies classes will be talking about candidates and the issues, she said.

“Without firsthand knowledge, I cannot speculate on the conversation or context of the discussion,” Rumpler said. “Again, we have not had any parent or student share a concern or complaint with the school.”

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