FALLING on the SWORD! NEVER MORE, DEBBIE!! LET the NYC BOARD of EDUCATION [and Right Wing Bigots] FALL ON THEIR SWORDS!
By KEVIN ANTHONY STODA, International Educator
Last Monday, it was reported on DEMOCRACY NOW in New York City, that in“education news, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled the New York City Department of Education discriminated against the founding principal of an Arabic-language school in Brooklyn by forcing her to resign in 2007. In a non-binding ruling, the commission said the city had discriminated against the principal Debbie Almontaser ‘on account of her race, religion and national origin.’ Almontaser is a Muslim of Yemeni descent. Almontaser was forced to resign from the Khalil Gibran International Academy after a campaign by right-wing activists and media outlets. Almontaser has fought to be reinstated to her post for the past three years.”
In the media, Debbie Almontaser was shown elaborating, “I’m not just standing up for my own rights, but I’m standing for the rights of Arabs and Muslims across the country. As you can clearly see, the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that is going around this country is quite startling. And, you know, the fact that we’re living in a new McCarthy era is quite, you know, fearful for many people. So I hope that my case will certainly set national and international precedents that Arabs and Muslims cannot be treated in this way.”
DO WE NEED THE EEOC PROTECT GOOD TEACHERS EVERYWHERE?
I think that the EEOC will have to function in the future to protect all teachers because most educational organizations have not done so with any strength. This lack of a strong voice has hurt education greatly for over half a century.
Amy Goodman became part of her interview with this question: “Can you go back in time for us, Debbie Almontaser, and explain what happened—first, about Khalil Gibran, the founding of this school, and how that happened?”
Almontaser replied, “So, Amy, the way that it all came about was New Visions for Public Schools and the Department of Education was interested in creating an Arabic dual language school. They spent six months looking for someone, and every time that they spoke to individuals in city government, at the Department of Education and in the community, everyone referred them to me. They referred them to me because of my work as an educator. I’ve been in the system now nineteen years. They referred them to me for the bridge-building work that I’ve been doing between Christians, Jews and Muslims. The incredible inter-faith work that I’ve been engaged in just showed that I was a perfect candidate for this. And so, New Visions for Public Schools invited me for a meeting. We spent two hours where they were convincing me this is the next step of my career. Shortly after that, I engaged in putting together a design team and, with the help of the community, finding a lead partner. And we ventured on the creation of the school. And the design team that I brought together was as diverse as the City of New York—Christians, Muslims, Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, who were truly, truly engaged and compelled by the mission and vision of such a school and who—some of them wanted their own children to go to this school.”
Sadly, long before progressives and centrist Americans understood what a great propaganda campaign we were under in the 1990s, many generations were already suffering—and great American educational visions were being smashed left and right from the 1970s onward across the USA.
Let me explain.
When I was in the fifth grade in a small Missouri town, Wentzville, in the early 1970s, we had a class on Africa, its culture, geography and people once or twice a week. In sixth grade we had a class on Latin America five days a week. By the 1980s, such programs in most cities and towns in America no longer existed.
If we look at the struggles of educators, like that of Almontaser over the last three years, I now personally hope that other American teachers, educators, and other adversely-treated whistleblowers— & who are unfairly forced to resign–will have the will to persist and outlive their persecutors.
Moreover, with this EEOC decision in hand, they should try and consider not falling on their swords so often in the face of bullying Board of Educations across America [and in the face of Xenophobic or Extremist groupings who are ready to fight and shout-down justice and fairness where it is being supported by educators].
On the other hand, based upon my friends’ and my own experiences in Kansas school districts in the 1980s and 1990s, both budding and mature educators need 10,000% more support from the teachers unions, administrators, parents, students, and State Boards of Education [and of State Boards of Equal Opportunities, etc.] across America.
“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ruling comes three years into Almontaser’s fight for reinstatement. The ruling calls on the Department of Education to reach a ‘just resolution’ in accordance with Almontaser’s demands. In addition to reinstatement, she’s also seeking back pay, damages and legal costs. But New York City officials are refusing to reverse their stance.”
For many decades now, boards of education across the land have been overstepping their bounds and trying to manipulate sound educational principles of inclusiveness and well-rounded educational philosophy due to political (mostly conservative and extremist) ends. Back in the 1980s, an alumni from my alma mater was forced out of her elementary school position in one Kansas town, southeast of Wichita, where she had begun to expand the curriculum to include information on Latin America. [This great young teacher had gone to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace in opposition to U.S. war-making on that country throughout the 1980s. She realized that students at the school and the people in that Kansas town had no real understanding of geography, global politics, and economic history.] Despite being tenured, this great young instructor was forced to resign by the local Board of Education after she had put some powers-that-be on the spot by making her views and voice known in the media, through letters-to-the editor, and elsewhere.
Similarly, two years earlier, another former classmate of mine had left his brilliant teaching career after only one year for similar reasons. That was in a town just north of Wichita. He, too, had had more than a few qualms about the almost intentionally closed-world his high school students were being trained and raised in, i.e. to fight distant wars in unknown parts of the globe in the name of God and Country.
Finally, in the early 1990s, I, too, would find myself run out of Western Kansas by a school principal and some closed-minded people when I let my own writing hands and personal elocution get to work. First, I had condemned the open door policy for military recruiters in the school cafeteria and hallways. Later, I had written letters-to-the-editor in several Kansas newspapers condemning the U.S.-led war in Kuwait (while at the same time decrying the great prison-building-spree taking place across-the-Plains while education budgets were being cut that same year).
What I found particularly sad in that era was that in none-of-these three cases did the local NEA even lift a finger for my friends nor I. In my case, the local NEA representative told me I would have to wait to be tenured before they would make a court case of such misguided educational- and social-political escapades and bullying.
FALLING ON HER SWORD TO SAVE THE SCHOOL
Almontaser reported how her dream of building an Arab-American bilingual public school became a personal nightmare for her and her family, “[S]hortly after it [the planned opening of such a school in 2006] was announced in the New York Times, in forty-eight hours, the right-wing blogs began to blog about the school, that it was going to be a madrasah, that it was going to be indoctrinating children. And several weeks later, they realized that I was an Arab and Muslim and decided to also then editorialize about me. And what’s sad about all of that is they just took snippets to create this foreign individual, versus looking at the person that I was and how integrated my family was in New York City.”
In short, it was the small-town rumor technique, which the Conservative think tanks have been running for decades that created a monster-like character of poor Mrs. Almontaser, “They [the hate all-Arab bloggers] never made mention of the fact that my son served at Ground Zero as a National Guardsman. They never made mention of the fact that my family has several individuals in the New York Police Department, and, for that matter, individuals who actually are Marines and who have actually served in Iraq. So they created this caricature of me that portrayed me as this foreign entity that people should be afraid of, versus the incredible person that many people across the city knew. And what was alarming about it was my colleagues and my friends were just in shock that people could create such havoc. And so, as the days progressed and weeks progressed, in June, a group of people formed this organization called the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, and they made it their job to continue editorializing about the school.”
Another interviewer on DEMOCRACY NOW noted, “Well, the ruling by the EEOC, it’s fascinating. It said that it was the Post article that prompted the Department of Education to force you to resign. This is a quote. It says, ‘Significantly, it was not her actual remarks, but their elaboration by the reporter—creating waves of explicit anti-Muslim bias from several extremist sources—that caused DOE to act,’ the commission’s letter said. So, explain what exactly the article said. The headline—I forgot the headline, but it was something like ‘revolting,’ or something like that.”
In short, character assassination by-innuendo was the way the Murdoch paper worked to persuade the NYC Board of Education to force her to resign—otherwise they had told her they would kill-her-baby, i.e. not allow the new Arab-American school to open. In the face of such an onslaught, the good teacher and administrator chose to resign at the last minute—rather than be held responsible any shame brought to the school by her further presence as chief administrator and key founder of the institution, the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW?
Amy Goodman noted, “New York City officials are refusing to reverse their stance. Paul Marks of the New York Law Department said, quote, ‘The [Department of Education] in no way discriminated against Ms. Almontaser and she will not be reinstated. If she continues to pursue litigation, we will vigorously defend against her groundless allegations.’”
Those are the same types of statements that the school (and school board of education lawyers) across Kansas and the USA have been using to kow-tow young and middle aged educators for far-too-long. Alan Levine, Almontasar’s lawyer, noted that as in Almontaser’s case the NYC Board of Education has its own choices to make: Will it kow-tow to bigots or change its mind? Or will the NYC BoD listen to the EEOC or hold its ground?
Levine noted, “Well, the popular conception about all this was that Debbie was the victim of a smear campaign. And she’s described that smear campaign. But she was really the victim of the Department of Education. The bigots in the community had no power to fire; the Department of Education did. They succumbed to the bigots. So that’s the significance.”
Admittedly, even in Kansas, I have seen some school board members come to me and encourage me in my work and in my educational efforts, but they hardly ever did so publicly and often [but not always] this support came too late.
Admittedly, I have resigned at least twice over the decades, too, to save “my baby”.
For example, in one high school, I resigned with the hope that the major international exchange program would continue to take place annually–even after I was gone. In another case, I resigned prior to another international excursion I had organized for students of mine and their parents, so that that international and cross-cultural educational trip [for at least these people in the community] would be saved from the political infighting of the Board of Education members.
For me, the reality of the fact that these international exchanges and trips continued on into the future, i.e. without me, was like the point at a distance from a rainbow, where I could enjoy (but not touch) the beautiful colors. However, no pot of gold would ever await me at the end of the rainbow in those cases. On the other hand, in the wake of the EEOC decision, i.e. in Almontaser’s case, there may be hope at the end of the rainbow.
Amy Goodman asked Almontaser, “[W]hat have you been doing over the last three years? Do you feel you were irreparably harmed by what took place?”
Almontaser explained, “Absolutely. I have suffered quite immensely in terms of emotionally, and I certainly believe that, you know, there needs to be, at the end of this—you know, at the end of the rainbow, there will be something positive. And so, what I’ve been doing the past few years, I’ve worked at central headquarters at the Department of Education. And more recently, I lost my assistant—my principal-assigned position and have reverted back to a teacher line. So I’ve actually suffered, you know, financially based on this. So I’m presently working at a Brooklyn high school as their special education coordinator.”
In short, Almontaser suffered both emotionally and financially over the past three years, but the NYC Board of Education are not helping Almontaser reach her dream at the end of a rainbow. However, she may be allowed to run her dream school some day—if the Board of Education accept the fact that they made a mistake and bullied a very highly qualified peacemaker and cross-cultural educator out of her job 3 years ago.