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Willmar School District holds to policy on religious activity

WILLMAR -- Willmar school officials plan to keep the same policy they've had for six years regarding Muslim daily prayers, but a local Somali father is not happy with the decision.

The policy allows students to pray during their lunch breaks and between class periods, according to Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.

Somali parents kept their children home last Friday to object to the district's po-licy, Abdulcadir Abucar Gaal said.

The ab-sence of the Somali students, about 5 percent of the district's 4,100 students, was the subject of rumors by Monday.

School officials met Tuesday with Gaal, a father and a Somali community leader. He operates the Somali Connection in downtown Willmar, which helps Somalis connect with services in the community.

Kjergaard said he plans to meet with more Somali parents in an effort to learn more about the feelings in the Somali community.

School officials said this week that the policy was developed in meetings with Somali parents six years ago.

"It's not like it's a brand new issue," Senior High Principal Rob Anderson said on Monday. "We've been dealing with it successfully for six years."

Gaal, however, said he was not aware of such an agreement. He moved to Willmar about six years ago. In the past, his children have been able to leave class to pray at the appropriate time, he said.

"We're not doing anything differently than we have in the past," said Superintendent Kjergaard. "I will protect the instructional time."

Allowing students to leave during a class is disruptive for teachers and for other students, he said.

It is possible individual teachers have allowed students to leave class for prayer, but "that is not the supported practice," he said.

"I have no problem with Somali students wanting to pray," he said. "It's the time frame that is the problem."

Muslims pray five times a day, and only one of those prayer times -- currently about 1:30 p.m. -- comes during the school day, Gaal said. The prayer time changes with the seasons, moving earlier or later as the length of the day changes.

Prayers at this time of year fall during the middle of classes at the Junior High and Senior High, Anderson said.

Prayers are not so much of an issue in elementary school, because younger children are not required to pray, Gaal said. School officials said elementary schedules allow more flexibility, too.

The Tuesday meeting was a disappointment, Gaal said, and he didn't feel the school officials were interested in finding a compromise.

One he suggested was to allow students to leave class one at a time to go pray. That idea was rejected.

School Board Chairman Mike Carlson said Gaal's plan would be disruptive to a class, just as a group of students leaving together would be.

Carlson said he had just joined the board when the agreement was first reached with Somali parents. "I think it's a fair compromise for all religions," he said, because students of any religion are free to practice it during non-instructional times.

The issue this fall appears to have arisen from a misconception that the school was banning all prayers, Carlson said.

That isn't true, he said, and school officials will work to make sure that message gets out to the broader Somali community.

Gaal said he is still sending his children to the Willmar schools, and in general the Somali community is very supportive of the school district.

"I need for my kids to go to school," he said. "I'm a strong believer in educational opportunity."