ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota charter school that came under fire for allegedly blurring the line between church and state must take “corrective” action in two areas related to religion at the school, the state Education Department said yesterday.
The agency reviewed several areas of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, including its curriculum, and determined that it was mostly in compliance with state and federal law.
However, the agency directed the school — which caters to Muslim students and shares a building with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and its mosque — “to take appropriate corrective actions” regarding Friday prayer services at the school and to make bus rides home available right after school ends, instead of making students wait until after a voluntary after-school religious program.
The school said it would work with the Education Department on complying with its directive.
“We got excellent cooperation from the school,” Assistant Education Commissioner Morgan Brown said. “They were timely in getting back with us, we had staff on for scheduled visits and they were very accommodating with our staff.”
Meanwhile, KSTP-TV reported that two men at the school tried to wrestle a television camera away from its photographer when he and a reporter went to the school to seek reaction yesterday to the Education Department’s directive. The station said police were called and that an ambulance attended to the photographer, who suffered minor shoulder and back injuries.
School officials told police the KSTP crews was trespassing.
KARE-TV reported that one of its news crews was also taping on school grounds, but that they had permission to be there.
Both stations said authorities were looking into possible trespassing charges against the KSTP crew and possible assault charges against the school officials.
The school of about 400 students came under fire after a woman who taught there alleged that it was offering religious instruction in Islam to students. According to state law, charter schools — publicly funded schools with greater autonomy than traditional schools — must be nonsectarian.
A conservative columnist for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis also raised the specter that the school in suburban Inver Grove Heights was teaching religion.
The agency’s review included two visits to the school (one scheduled and one unannounced), interviews with teachers and correspondence with school officials.
The issue has particular resonance in Minnesota, which has a growing population of African immigrants and Muslim refugees. The state has also been an incubator for the charter school movement, and Brown said yesterday that the Education Department has, in the past, also looked closely at charter schools accused of promoting Christianity.
In its review of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, the agency found, in part, that the 30-minute Friday prayer service doesn’t qualify as permissible “released time” for religious instruction because the meetings take place at the school. It also found that by praying alongside students at the service, teachers may create the impression that the school is endorsing religion.
In a news release, the school said the Education Department found that it wasn’t a religious school and hadn’t violated any state laws or federal guidelines regarding school prayer.
Asad Zaman, the school’s executive director, referred to the concerns raised by the Education Department as “minor” and said it was more significant that the agency found there were no problems with the school’s curriculum.
“I believe this report vindicates what we have been saying all along in that we are not a Muslim school. We are not a religious school,” Zaman said. However, he said, “we take it seriously and will comply with their concerns.”
The school also noted that the Education Department determined that its short prayer sessions offered Monday through Thursday appear to satisfy legal requirements.
Zaman said the school hadn’t determined how it would change its sessions on Friday, the Muslim holy day akin to Sundays for Christians.
As for the busing issue, he said more than 30% of the students choose not to participate in the religious program held there after school, even though they remain on site. But he said the school would begin offering students rides home right after the school day ends, before the religious program begins.
Brown, the commissioner, said the agency expected the school to address its concerns about the Friday prayer services within weeks and the busing issue by the start of school in the fall. He declined to say what penalties the academy could face for failing to comply but added that Commissioner Alice Seagren ultimately had the power to withhold funding for the school.