Charter school's religious activities focus of state investigation

Principal Asad Zaman
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy principal Asad Zaman.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Tarek ibn Zayad Academy is one of only a handful of public schools in Minnesota that focuses on Middle Eastern culture.

More than 300 students attend the school. Girls wear headscarves and the school shares a site with a mosque and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

Now, a Bloomington woman who taught at the school last month says she believes the school is offering religious instruction to its students.

Kindergarten students study Arabic
Kindergarten students study Arabic at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

It looked like a religious figure was leading a group of students in a prayer during the school day, and later leading study of the Koran in a classroom on the day she worked at the school, Amanda Getz says.

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"If you wouldn't have told me what kind of school it was, I would have said, 'Oh, this is, you know, a Muslim private school.' That's honestly what it felt like," Getz told Minnesota Public Radio News.

That would be a violation of state law that publicly funded schools must be non-sectarian. School-sponsored prayer in public schools was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962.

The Minnesota Department of Education said Tuesday it was conducting a review of Getz's allegations.

Her concerns about the prayers and religious study were made public by a Star Tribune newspaper columnist.

"This is part of the problem with relying on the word of someone who has been in the school all of six hours."

The school was issued a written warning by state officials in 2004, requiring the school to remove publicly posted religious materials. The letter also said the academy appeared to have set aside a large space exclusively for religious purposes, which is also prohibited.

But Asad Zaman, the founder of the school, maintains it is in full compliance with state and federal law regarding religious instructions.

"There is nothing to investigate. However, we fully welcome the review, and we will cooperate fully with the Department of Education, because we believe they will find nothing wrong with the school," said Zaman.

The substitute teacher may indeed have seen students praying, he said. But the students had been released early from school for religious instruction, as occasionally happens in other public schools, he said.

Zaman noted that the substitute teacher didn't speak Arabic, and he said she may have misinterpreted any number of cultural practices as religious instruction.

"This is part of the problem with relying on the word of someone who has been in the school all of six hours," Zaman said.

His school has become the subject of a series of threatening communications after the substitute teacher's allegations were made public in the newspaper on Wednesday, Zaman said.

The threats had prompted him to invite Inver Grove Heights police to Tarek ibn Zayad Academy to assess the security of his school, he said.