School board member calls for removal of textbook over Islam content

Rick Wagner • Updated Oct 4, 2016 at 9:28 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Following the impassioned Monday night speech of a parent alleging a textbook used in Sullivan County promotes Islam, county school board member Mark Ireson set the wheels in motion for possibly removal of that Pearson seventh grade social studies and history textbook.

At the end of the meeting, Ireson made a motion to remove the Pearson textbook immediately “because it does not represent the values of the county.”

“I will not give up this fight,” said Bluff City Middle School parent Michelle Edmisten, the sole public commenter. “Right this wrong tonight.”

However, after Ireson’s motion, school system officials said there is a textbook removal policy, 4.403, in place that is to be followed, including the parent filling out a form and the formation of a committee on the matter, and that the matter could be addressed at a future called board meeting. 

Joe Cerone, who brought up the Pearson textbook at last month’s meeting, signed up to speak Monday, but Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes did not allow that because, he said, Cerone lives outside Sullivan County, in the Hawkins County portion of Kingsport. BOE Policy does not mention residency requirements for public comments but says the board can decline commenters. Cerone, after the meeting, said the board could suspend or abolish the textbook policy and said he has property being renovated in Sullivan County.

“My child's personal religious beliefs were violated,” said Edmisten, adding that her seventh grade daughter took zeros on the section on Islamic history after a teacher didn’t allow her to opt out of the curriculum and standards and do alternative studies. “Those are zeros that we proudly took and we will not compromise.”

In remarks that drew applause, she called for removal of the book and to “stand with the moral compass” upon which she said the United States was founded and to “take back our families, schools and our country.”

Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Hughes said the system is exploring a religious accommodation option since there is no “opt out” allowed in Tennessee. “We don’t have an opt out. The state of Tennessee doesn’t have an opt out,” Rafalowski said after the meeting.


BOE member Randall Jones said before the board considers abandoning Pearson it needs to know the cost of purchasing new textbooks. The new books or other curriculum would serve until the new social studies standards, under a public review and comment process now, would go into effect in 2019-20. Rafalowski said the only other Tennessee-approved text, aside from developing one that would require state approval, is from McGraw-Hill.

“We support our faculty and our staff,” said Hughes, who also said he has issues with the Pearson textbook. “This debate over the textbook has nothing to do with the faculty.”

However, Edmisten disagreed. “I’m very happy (with Ireson's motion). I’'m very unhappy about the board for apologizing to the staff because it is a teacher’s discretion,” Edmisten said. “That's why I'm going to continue the fight. 2019 is too long to wait.”

She was referring to draft state Board of Education seventh grade standards, which would remove a section on Islamic history from 400 to 1500 but retain mentions of Islam in other sections. Until and unless the standards change'in 2019-20, Hughes said Sullivan County must follow the law and standards “"whether we like it or whether we don’t.”

“I think everybody on the board agrees with the public. We live here, too,” Hughes said.

“It’s not age appropriate,” Edmisten said of the middle school Islamic history now. She and Hughes also said they disagreed with the proposed removal of standards from Tennessee history, including why Tennessee is the Volunteer State, where its name originated and some of its Civil War history. State BOE officials said that is part of streamlining standards teachers say they just can’t cover in a school year.

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