A Highlands Ranch middle school trip to a mosque, a long-standing feature of its seventh-grade social studies class, made national headlines after a parent expressed concerns about it on a Denver radio talk show.
The Rocky Heights Middle School parent, who could not be reached for comment, reportedly objected to a dress code for female students. It required they cover their ankles and heads while in the mosque.
Three students out of 155 did not attend the Jan. 13 field trip that included stops at a mosque, synagogue and Greek Orthodox church. School officials said they do not know why the trio opted out. Participation in field trips is optional.
The study of world religions is included in the Colorado Academic Standards for seventh-grade social studies, and is a partial focus of the 10-year-old RHMS course.
While participation in the annual visit to the three places of worship is not mandatory, “Students who choose to attend the RHMS world religion field trip are expected to respect the dress code of the host facility,” according to the Douglas County School District.
All students were asked to wear long pants that covered their ankles. During the mosque visit, girls were asked to cover their heads with scarves or hooded sweatshirts.
A Douglas County School Board member who went along on the field trip described it as an educational experience. Judi Reynolds said she did not view any part of the visit as cause for alarm.
“I went because I was hearing so much about it, and I figured it would be an opportunity to find out what really happened on the trip,” Reynolds said. “It was very educational.
“Nobody made them worship.”
Representatives from the Colorado Muslim Society did not return calls requesting comment.
School district spokeswoman Paula Hans said RMHS principal Mike Loitz was not available for an interview.
Reynolds said none of the students objected to covering their heads or taking off their shoes before entering the worship area of the mosque. An imam talked about the history of Islam, and its culture.
“Their culture values modesty and he pointed to his own dress as part of that,” said Reynolds, adding she found the explanation “perfectly valid.”
“If I'm visiting someone else's home or culture, and they've made a request of me, I just simply don't have a problem; it's a show of respect,” she said, noting the Vatican also requires a dress code.
Visitors to Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's Basilica cannot wear sleeveless blouses, miniskirts, shorts, or hats.
“It's not saying I'm accepting what you're telling me,” Reynolds said. “I'm accepting your request because I'm an invited guest in your home.”
Speakers at all three stops offered similar talks about their religion's history and culture. All of them also brought up the Jan. 7 mass shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in France. The satirical magazine published controversial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
“At the mosque, the imam explained that in their religion, they don't use images and it is considered an insult to try to portray Muhammed,” Reynolds said. “Then he said what happened in Paris is a very wrong response to that insult.”
Reynolds said she and other school board members received several emails about the trip. Most of those that were critical were sent from people outside Douglas County.
“It shows me that the school community is very supportive of this trip; they understand the reason,” she said. “Religion is such an integral part of world history. By having an understanding of those traditions, I think that helps to better understand not just history but maybe some of those current events.”
An article on DCSD's website about the mosque radio show discussion said it provides “authentic learning experiences to all students,” both in and out of the classroom. “We teach students how to think, not what to think,” it read.