Within days of a video of Middle School students on a field trip praying at a mosque, e-mailed with an accompanying protest from Americans For Peace And Tolerance, broadcast news crews and reporters were paying special attention to Wellesley.
Wellesley Middle School Principal Joshua Frank addressed the situation in a Friday e-mail to parents. "I'm writing to let you know that there were several TV news trucks around the middle school today because of the mosque field trip story. In response, staff focused on minimizing these distractions, acknowledging student concerns and answering questions," he wrote. He said administrators and teachers offered students the opportunity to ask questions about the story in social studies classes, and, "...we did remind students that it is important not to spread rumors when a story like this comes out."
Charles Jacobs, head of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, made the complaint on behalf of an anonymous Wellesley parent, credited with taking the video, but this is not the first time he has clashed with the the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, where the field trip took place.
Jacobs, who also claims the Islamic Center is a radical influence, opposed the construction of the building, and is a well known foil to Bilal Kaleem, president and director of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society and spokesman for the ISBCC. "The group is a very fringe, anti-muslim, islamophobic group," Kaleem said of Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
Jacobs' criticism of a rabbi who spoke in defense of the ISBCC in a Jewish Advocate column was met with a letter signed by 70 rabbis who opposed what they called Jacobs' half-truths and appeals to fear. "That's his own community speaking out against him," Kaleem said. He said he's invited Jacobs to visit the center himself, but has been rebuffed.
Jacobs said he's refused to meet with Kaleem because his organization is routinely 'deceived' by the ISBCC. He claims the Muslim American Society of America, with which the ISBCC is affiliated, is led by Islamic radicals whose public statements are anti-semitic. In 2007, the Boston Phoenix posted a "Don't Quote Me" column by Adam Reilly detailing local media coverage of the then-Islamic Society of Boston's leadership, and the ISB's resulting lawsuits. A column co-written by Jacobs in the Boston Globe details his issues with the Islamic Center's leaders.
Kaleem denied the ISBCC is radical, and said the center was created in part to educate the community about Islam and foster outreach opportunities. Schools often visit as during the WMS field trip, he said, as have employees from the TSA and officers from the Boston Police Department. "They see us as legitimate, mainstream partners in the community," he said.
Elaine Driscoll, director of communications at the Boston Police Department, said officers at the police academy did participate in an educational program with the ISBCC. She was not able to elaborate late Friday.
Kaleem said the students were not invited or encouraged to pray with the other faithful during the field trip. He said the guides who lead the tours take part in the prayer themselves and are not supervising the students during that time. That, he said, is left to the school's chaperones. "Our specific policy in theses tours is that we not invite the public to take part," he said, though if someone were to ask to participate, that would be up to them, or in the case of a field trip, the chaperones.
The video, released Thursday morning, shows students praying during a field trip to the Islamic Center of Boston Cultural Center in May, one of a series of social studies field trips. The trips, part of the sixth grade social studies curriculum, "Enduring Beliefs and the World Today," are intended to allow students to visit and observe places of worship, not participate. Superintendent Bella Wong sent a letter to parents last week apologizing that students were allowed to be "imitating the act of prayer".
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts agreed the students taking part in prayer during the trip was not appropriate. "If, as the video produced by this organization purports to show, public school children were indeed asked to take part in a prayer service at a mosque, it would be deeply troubling, as would any invitation to public school children to participate in a prayer service at any church, temple, or other religious place of worship," said Carol Rose, executive director, ACLU of Massachusetts, in a Sept. 16 release.
However, the release also casts doubt on the veracity of events depicted in the video. "The ACLU also is troubled by the misleading inclusion of ACLU staff in this video clip. The ACLU was never involved in a visit by public school children to the Roxbury mosque. Rather, images of ACLU staff included in the video were taken at a public event held at the Roxbury mosque on May 22, 2010, at which Governor Deval Patrick, Maura Healey, Chief, Civil Rights Division at Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, ACLU of Massachusetts Education Director Nancy Murray, and others were invited to speak about ways to fight prejudice and discrimination in Massachusetts," Rose wrote.
The Muslim American Society has also published a lengthy statement about the video, which alleges additional liberties taken in its editing.
Wellesley Patch Correspondent Ellen Ishkanian contributed to this report.