BRISTOL -- A presentation to â€śdispel misconceptionsâ€ť about the Islamic faith for a seventh grade social studies class at Northeast Middle School was cancelled after the teacher received threats and complaints.
Annam Choudry, who started an organization called YUSRA, was scheduled to give the presentation on Nov. 22, about her experiences as an American who practices Islam. Choudry was born and raised in New York and now resides in Connecticut according to a letter that was sent to parents on Nov. 9, announcing the presentation.
â€śTheir [YUSRA] mission is to train Muslim women to inform others about the Islamic faith and to dispel misconceptions that are prevalent in todayâ€™s society,â€ť reads the letter. â€śThis presentation will enrich our curriculum on work history.â€ť
The letter was then shared on the private Facebook group, â€śBristol Talks,â€ť and quickly sparked a debate among members as to whether or not the presentation should occur. The Bristol Board of Education then cancelled the presentation after threats were made to the teacher, Carol Corry, who was unavailable to comment.
Bristol police on Thursday said they have been in contact with school officials. Chief Brian Gould said the school board informed him that there â€śwas no specific threat that required police investigation at this point.â€ť
â€śWe believe itâ€™s the schoolâ€™s responsibility to teach students about world views and world religions. We support our teachers and students and it is unfortunate how the situation evolved,â€ť said Chris Wilson, chair of the school board.
â€śWeâ€™re going to try and create a panel discussion and bring in some people who have experience with world religions and cultures to provide a greater understanding,â€ť he continued. â€śBristol certainly respects and is tolerant of others, and this does not reflect the ideas of the Bristol community.â€ť
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said she understands the value of the presentation and the role it plays in the educational curriculum.
â€śI support the decision of the superintendent to cancel the presentation because the safety of students and staff,â€ť Zoppo-Sassu said. â€śThough, it is disappointing because the plans coordinated perfectly with the statewide curriculum for seventh grade.â€ť
The seventh grade curriculum for social studies that is part of the state standard includes a unit of study called â€śThe Rise of Western Religions After the Fall of Rome,â€ť and within that unit are objective for classes to touch upon: How did major religions such as Christianity and Islam in the west develop? What similarities and differences exist between Christianity and Islam? Where did the major religions of Christianity and Islam spread?
The curriculum also specifies that â€śfuture presentations were planned to invite and individual of a Christian faith to share his experiences as an American who practices a Christian faith.â€ť
The Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization, responded to the presentation being cancelled and Choudry being disinvited.
â€śI had a very positive discussion this morning with Bristol Public School Superintendent Dr. Susan Moreau,â€ť Farhan Memon, Chairperson of CAIR-CT, said in a press release. â€śDr. Moreau assured me of BPSâ€™ commitment to diversity education and the need for the entire Bristol community to learn about other cultures and religions. We are, however, concerned that Bristol Public Schools would seemingly bow to public pressure in this manner.
â€śWhile we appreciate that the safety of students and faculty is of paramount importance, the district should be working with the Bristol Police Department to ensure the security of the school. The police department in turn should be taking any true threats seriously and investigating them. Cancelling speakers outright emboldens individuals and organizations in Bristol who are Islamophobic and Anti-Semitic. It does a disservice to Bristolâ€™s students and to the community as a whole who need to learn about Americaâ€™s pluralism and diversity.
â€śAt a time when the civil liberties of Muslim Americans are under attack through policies like Trumpâ€™s Muslim Bans and with violent incidents against Muslims increasing, it is vital that school children are exposed to Islam in the context of a secular curriculum,â€ť Memon continued. â€śWe all need to learn about each other so that we continue to live and work harmoniously in a pluralistic society. We look forward to working with BPS to ensure that Islam is taught as a world religion in classrooms and that American Muslims can share their experiences with students.â€ť
Zoppo-Sassu explained that for years now the local Muslim community has gathered at St. Joseph Church the night before for an inter-faith Thanksgiving service that is sponsored by all the local churches, as it will this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
â€śMy hope is that anybody who may be upset and wants to take a positive stance to come Wednesday night,â€ť she said.
Justin Muszynski contributed to this story.
Lorenzo Burgio can be reached at 860-973-5088 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lorenzo Burgio on Twitter @burgioBP.