Wall of Silence Broken at State’s Muslim Public School

Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), April 9, 2008

Recently, I wrote about Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Charter schools are public schools and by law must not endorse or promote religion.

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TIZA has many characteristics that suggest a religious school. {snip}

Students pray daily, the cafeteria serves halal food—permissible under Islamic law—and “Islamic Studies” is offered at the end of the school day.

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Now, however, an eyewitness has stepped forward. Amanda Getz of Bloomington is a substitute teacher. She worked as a substitute in two fifth-grade classrooms at TIZA on Friday, March 14. Her experience suggests that school-sponsored religious activity plays an integral role at TIZA.

Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, she says she was told that the day’s schedule included a “school assembly” in the gym after lunch.

Before the assembly, she says she was told, her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform “their ritual washing.”

Afterward, Getz said, “teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap, who had been at the school all day,” was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man “was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as the students entered.”

“The prayer I saw was not voluntary,” Getz said. “The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred.”

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After school, Getz’s fifth-graders stayed in their classroom and the man in white who had led prayer in the gym came in to teach Islamic Studies. TIZA has in effect extended the school day—buses leave only after Islamic Studies is over. Getz did not see evidence of other extra-curricular activity, except for a group of small children playing outside. {snip}

Why does the Minnesota Department of Education allow this sort of religious activity at a public school? According to Zaman, the department inspects TIZA regularly—and has done so “numerous times”—to ensure that it is not a religious school.

But the department’s records document only three site visits to TIZA in five years—two in 2003-04 and one in 2007, according to Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown. None of the visits focused specifically on religious practices.

The department is set up to operate on a “complaint basis,” and “since 2004, we haven’t gotten a single complaint about TIZA,” Brown said. In 2004, he sent two letters to the school inquiring about religious activity reported by visiting department staffers and in a news article. Brown was satisfied with Zaman’s assurance that prayer is “voluntary” and “student-led,” he said. The department did not attempt to confirm this independently, and did not ask how 5- to 11-year-olds could be initiating prayer. (At the time, TIZA was a K-5 school.)

Zaman agreed to respond by e-mail to concerns raised about the school’s practices. Student “prayer is not mandated by TIZA,” he wrote, and so is legal. On Friday afternoons, “students are released . . . to either join a parent-led service or for study hall.” Islamic Studies is provided by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and other “nonsectarian” after-school options are available, he added.

Yet prayer at TIZA does not appear to be spontaneously initiated by students, but rather scheduled, organized and promoted by school authorities.

Request for volunteers

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TIZA’s operation as a public, taxpayer-funded school is troubling on several fronts. TIZA is skirting the law by operating what is essentially an Islamic school at taxpayer expense. {snip}

TIZA is now being held up as a national model for a new kind of charter school. If it passes legal muster, Minnesota taxpayers may soon find themselves footing the bill for a separate system of education for Muslims.

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