Although initial reports indicated that the students had been made to wear the burqas as part of a controversial online public school curriculum called CSCOPE — which has been criticized for its alleged "Islamic and anti-American bias" — the school district released a statement Monday saying the students volunteered to wear the burqas during a lesson taught as part of standard Texas public school curriculum.
The students, who attend Lumberton High School in Lumberton, Texas, wore the burqas for a geography class held on Feb. 1 that the Lumberton Unified School District says is intended to teach them about different cultures.
But some parents came across a photo on Facebook of their children wearing burqas during the lesson, igniting debate about whether the school was promoting Islam.
The online news site WND reported that a student had quoted a teacher as saying, "We are going to change your perception of Islam."
According to WND, a student reported the teacher as also saying, "I do not necessarily agree with this, but I am supposed to teach you that we are not to call these people terrorists."
A student in the class said the burqa exercise had focused on fashion and "did not include the fact that in many Muslim communities, women who appear in public without a burqa face being beaten, imprisoned or murdered by family members, vigilante groups or even the state," WND said.
Lumberton resident David Bellow posted about the incident on his blog, criticizing the school for what he alleged was a biased curriculum.
"I have no problem with them teaching students about different kinds of cultures, but just don't tell them that burqas are just a fashion statement when women are punished in some of these countries for not wearing them," Bellow told MSN News. "The issue is that it was portrayed in a biased way and didn't tell the whole story."
Bellow said that parents were also upset that there had been no mention of Christianity during the lesson. "If you are teaching about Islam, you should teach about Christianity as well," he said.
He added that parents were furious because students had said that they were told to call terrorists "freedom fighters."
"Lumberton does not 'promote' Islam, but 'teaches' a world geography curriculum as prescribed by the state of Texas," Lumberton Independent School District Superintendent John Valastro told MSN News. "The teacher is a veteran teacher and she is Jewish. Now of all people, if anyone had an agenda to teach the negative aspects of Islam, it might be her. The teacher was teaching about culture and not about a dangerous radical religion."
The district addressed the accusations against it in a statement posted on its website Monday:
"Recently a picture had surfaced showing five students dressed in burqa's [sic] (Islamic attire) in a World Geography classroom at Lumberton High School. The lesson that was offered was not a written CSCOPE lesson; however it informed students to the customary culture of the people in the Middle East.
"The lesson that was offered focused on exposing students to world cultures, religions, customs, and belief systems. A description on the whiteboard behind the students show the splits in religions: Islam (Sunni and Shia), Judaism (Reform, Conservatives, and Orthodox), and Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant). Clothing expresses the individual culture. The lesson is not teaching a specific religion, and the students volunteered to wear the clothing."
Valastro said that although he had not been present during the lesson, he was confident that the teacher would have addressed any questions students had about the punitive aspects of not wearing a burqa.
"I think the teacher is well versed in all the ramifications of what the religion represents," Valastro said. "I assure you, she knows her stuff and if it came up, she could address the oppression piece quite clearly."
Valastro added that the lesson was "a teachable moment to discuss the horrendous conditions that women live under in these countries."
"Did we do everything right? Probably not, but we attempt to teach our students critical thinking skills so they can judge for themselves," he said. "I can honestly say, to my knowledge, Lumberton ISD has never converted a single student to Islam."