TERRE HAUTE —
What was intended as a gesture of peace and love to promote acceptance and understanding has instead turned into a firestorm of controversy at Dixie Bee Elementary School.
When Mohammed Alharbi, his wife and three children distributed gifts to teachers at the elementary school Friday, they were participating in a national event organized by Muslims called “Mohammed is a Prophet of Mercy — Sharing the Language of Peace and Love.”
The gifts consisted of a flower and an attached tag or card with one of eight possible quotes from the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
Similar events took place at cities across the country and the event has a Facebook site. Organizing for the event began two weeks ago. The main focus in Terre Haute was at ISU, where about 70 people distributed flowers and cards at several locations Friday.
The intent was to show respect and gratitude to America, said Alharbi, who is from Saudi Arabia. He is a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at Indiana State University, and he has three daughters who attend Dixie Bee.
The hope is that by extending that gesture of respect and gratitude, the American community “will accept us [Muslims] as part of the community,” he said.
He also believed “it would be a great idea” to distribute the gifts to Dixie Bee teachers, and he received permission from Principal Mika Cassell a few days beforehand.
But instead, the distribution of gifts has caused some to question the family’s intent and others to complain about the school’s security breach.
The family went classroom to classroom, which wasn’t supposed to happen, according to school district officials.
While Alharbi had permission to take the flowers and cards to Dixie Bee, the gifts were supposed to have been placed in a central location, such as a lounge, where teachers could take them, if they chose.
But Alharbi and his family said they did not know that, and they went room to room. “I followed the rules,” he told the Tribune-Star in an interview Wednesday. “Nothing wrong happened. No one could judge me for what I did.”
Cassell wasn’t at school when Alharbi arrived there Friday morning, and staff gave the parents visitor passes. Alharbi asked to hold the basket of flowers.
No one told them to leave the flowers at a lounge, he said. Then he, his wife and three daughters went to classrooms.
Alharbi and his wife stayed in the hallway, while the girls gave the flowers at the door or inside the classroom.
The cards given out carried one of eight possible quotes from the prophet Mohammed. One states, “The best form of charity is that which is secretly given to the poor by one who himself has little to offer.” Another states, “Do not defame people lest you make them your enemies.”
His wife used a camera to videotape the children so they would have good memories of their time in Terre Haute; they will be returning to Saudi Arabia in a year.
Later, when Cassell told them they couldn’t videotape without permission, Alharbi returned to the school, and Cassell erased the video taken at the school.
Alharbi noted that in other communities, media outlets covered the event in a positive way. The intent was not to promote a religion, but to create understanding.
Ray Azar, Vigo County School Corp. director of student services, noted that when Cassell first received the request from Alharbi to present the gifts, she contacted the administration to find whether they should or could be passed out.
The district has policies on fliers, but none on gifts from a student to a teacher, Azar said.
The district contacted an attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, and the attorney’s opinion was that the distribution of gifts by Alharbi and his family should be allowed, as long as it did not involve proselytizing or preaching.
According to ISBA, if a school allows students to give Christmas cards and gifts to teachers, which might potentially have religious pictures and quotations, “You can’t allow one and not the other,” Azar said. Otherwise, it could be viewed as viewpoint discrimination, which can become a legal issue.
Cassell told the family they could bring the gifts, and her plan was for the gifts to be put in a teacher lounge or something similar, Azar said.
On Friday, Alharbi and his wife did check in at the office and received visitor passes. “I think the office staff may have been unaware of the procedure” that the Alharbis were supposed to leave the gifts someplace and not go room to room, Azar said.
The Alharbis were presenting a “gift of appreciation to teachers,” Azar said. What they did was not a threat, and there was “no harm intended.”
By the time Cassell found out what had happened, Alharbi and his wife had left. When the family learned they were not supposed to have gone door to door, “They were very apologetic about it,” Azar said.
In the end, the gift-giving “didn’t happen the way we anticipated, and we are working to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Azar said.
There have been some “frank discussions” with school staff about what took place, he said. “We did not feel anybody did anything intentionally wrong. If there were mistakes made, it was unintentional and completely innocent.”
While he could not comment on whether any staff would be disciplined, Azar did say, “I don’t think there should be any type of severe discipline for any employee.”
In the wake of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, school staff are learning new security procedures and “there are bumps in the road when you do things differently,” Azar said.
Recent media coverage of the Dixie Bee incident has generated some negative comments that suggest intolerance of Muslims and their religion.
“It’s very difficult to read some of the nasty comments made,” Azar said. “Some of the things out there are really disturbing, and I hope it will stop.”
Overall, he believes the community “is very open and accepting and tolerant. We have diverse cultures throughout our community, starting at ISU.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.