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2010-03-16

Federal Panel Finds NY Dept. of Education Discriminated Against Arabic School Principal

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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.” We speak with Almontaser and her attorney, Alan Levine. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We begin today with the latest news in the controversial case of Debbie Almontaser. She’s the founding principal of a New York Arabic-language school who was forced to resign following a right-wing campaign in 2007. In a non-binding ruling, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled the New York City Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser, quote, "on account of her race, religion and national origin."

Almontaser is a Muslim of Yemeni descent. She was forced out over her comments in the New York Post when she explained the use of the word "intifada," or "uprising." The Post had questioned Almontaser because the word "intifada" appeared on a T-shirt of a women’s organization that sometimes used the offices of a community group where she was a board member. The T-shirt had nothing to do with her school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, but Almontaser came under right-wing criticism for not denouncing the use of the word "intifada."

AMY GOODMAN: 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. 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," he said.

Well, we’re joined here in our New York studio by Debbie Almontaser. We’re also joined by her attorney, Alan Levine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, this is a very significant ruling by the federal EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Can you talk about your reaction to it?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Well, thank you for having us. We’re really pleased to be here.

First, I want to say that I was absolutely delighted by this, that a neutral official body, government body, actually recognized that there was wrong done to me. And so, it’s truly a vindication for me and all people — a victory for all people of color, and specifically Arabs and Muslims in the post-9/11 world.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I want to read quote from the EEOC’s decision. It says the — it found the Department of Education “succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on DOE as an employer.” What’s your response to that?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: My response was truly incredible to that. When I saw that, I was like, this is exactly what this school was about. It was to dispel the fears and misconceptions that Arabs and Muslims have been under. It’s an opportunity to educate the broader public about Arab culture and history and heritage. And so, this truly was a vindication to see that comment being written in the report. It truly says a lot about what this school was about. And sadly, it was made to be something else.

AMY GOODMAN: 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?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: 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.

And so, the school was approved in February of 2007. And shortly after its approval — and it was —-

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a charter school?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: It’s a public school, a full-fledged public school.

And shortly after it 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. They 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.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And explain, as Stop the Madrassa -— “madrasah” just means “school” in Arabic.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Yes.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But it has this connotation in this country.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: It’s developed a negative connotation based on the schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so, unfortunately, this group, you know, was very aggressive in looking for things and trying to create things, and it led to them finding out about Arab Heritage Week, which is something that I inaugurated with the City of New York. In July, there was this week of events honoring Arab heritage. And what they did was attend all of these events, looking to see if they would find something. They found this T-shirt at the Arab Heritage Park Festival. They took a picture of it. They put out a press release.

AMY GOODMAN: That said “Intifada NYC.”

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Yes. And they put this press release out. You know, news media from all over the country called the Department of Education. The Department of Education called me and said, “Debbie, can you tell us what’s going on?” And I said to them this, you know, T-shirt has nothing to do with me or the school, nor does the organization. Yes, it shares an office space in a organization which I sit on the board of, but there is really no story here.

And the Department of Education was able to get all of the media, you know, to just let this go, except for the New York Post, which, the New York Post, for months, was gunning for me and the school. They were always asking for interviews, and I simply made it a rule that I would not speak to the New York Post. And the Department of Education supported me on that, and they also protected me from Fox News, which was always calling, as well. And sadly, that weekend, when the pressure mounted from the New York Post, they pressured me to give an interview.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Who? The Department of Education?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: The Department of Education.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: 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.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: “Principal Revolting.”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: So, the interview was basically about five to seven minutes long. The Department of Education had a press person with me on the phone.

AMY GOODMAN: The Department of Education made you do this?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Yes, absolutely made me do this. They knew that I never wanted to speak to the Post, and they said, “It’s in the best interest of the school that you speak to this reporter, because, if you don’t, they’re going to be writing something that’s not going to be favorable.” And my response was, “Whether I speak or not, they’re not going to write anything favorable.” And when it came to the line that “this is in the best interest of the school, you need to speak to them, we will be on the phone with you,” I ended up having no choice but to speak to the reporter.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: So what happened on the interview is he asked me a few questions. He asked about the organization and its T-shirt. And I simply said to him, “There’s nothing to speak about in this regard. This organization and its T-shirts have nothing to do with me or the school, therefore there’s really no discussion on this issue. I’m happy to have a conversation with you in regards to the school.”

And so, he asked me one or two questions about the school and then asked me for the root word of the word “intifada.” And I then went on to say to him, “As the reporter, you should have done your homework on this.” And his response to me was, “Yes, I did, and I found many definitions for the word but wanted to have a better understanding of where this word originated from, its root word.” And I, as an educator, simply responded and said to him that it comes from the root word of the word “infad” in Arabic, which is “shake off”; however, this word has, you know, evolved and developed a negative connotation based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where thousands of people have died. He then simply said, “OK, well, thank you. This was really good.” And shortly afterward, we hung up.

And within the interview, I had also reinstated that I am someone who does not believe in violence and condemn all violence, any shape, way or form. The person from the press office who was on the phone, you know, reiterated that. She had no issue of my engaging with him in the conversation about the root word of the word “intifada.” She saw that I was an educator and doing what educators do. I did not provide my political opinion or my views. I simply did what educators do, and that is to provide multiple perspectives on an issue to help people critically make their own decisions.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you sued the New York Post, correct?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: No, I did not.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. I also want to ask about the role of the mayor in forcing you to resign and also what this Board of Education ruling means by the federal EEOC. And I’d like to ask your lawyer about that, as well. Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, forced out by the City of New York. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with her and her lawyer in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran Academy, and Alan Levine, her attorney. A very significant ruling came down last week from the federal government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying that she was unjustly dealt with by the Board of Education in New York when they forced her out of her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy.

It hadn’t even opened yet, is that right?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: That’s right. It hadn’t opened yet. Three weeks prior to opening, the firestorm took place.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did Mayor Bloomberg fit into this story?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: He was the ultimate decision maker that I be removed.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you met him before?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: I knew him very well. I knew him very well through my work with city government officials, the Immigrant Affairs Office, the Community Affairs Office, the whole thing with Arab Heritage inauguration. Every year, there was a breakfast at Gracie Mansion, which we were at. In fact, the first Arab Heritage Week, he recognized me for my efforts in building bridges between the diverse communities of New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: So, did you get word directly from him that you were to leave?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: I was given direct words from him through other people. He sent the president of New Visions to first speak to me. And then I said, “Well, I need to hear this from my employer, Chancellor Klein.” And the president of New Visions contacted the Department of Education. He was not made available, and I was then met with, actually, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who basically made it crystal clear that this was a mayor’s directive.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Alan Levine, you’re Debbie’s lawyer. What is the significance of this ruling by the EEOC?

ALAN LEVINE: 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.

They’ve said all along that we didn’t — the other significant thing is that she voluntarily resigned; she fell on the sword for the Department of Education to save the school. What Dennis Walcott told her and the head of New Visions told her is, “Debbie, if you don’t resign, the school isn’t going to open.” So, though they didn’t discharge her, what the EEOC said is they constructively discharged her. They gave her no choice. If she didn’t resign, her school would close. She couldn’t do that to the community. She couldn’t do that to the parents, to the students, so she resigned. But she was forced to resign.

And it’s really important, because the — to know that it’s the DOE that really did her in. The DOE knew what the facts were. They knew Debbie’s record. Here’s a story that appears that associate with her with violence in the Middle East. They know very well that she’s had a lifetime of commitment to nonviolence, to reconciliation between Jewish and Muslim and Christian communities. They could have made this go away in a day. They could have said, “This is all nonsense. We know what her record is. The allegations have no basis. Let’s move on.” They refused to do that.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what are you calling for right now?

ALAN LEVINE: At this point, we’re hoping that the DOE will take the EEOC at its suggestion that we ought to sit down and come to a just resolution. So far, they’re being rather adamant in refusing to do that, but it’s only a couple of days later. If they don’t, then we’ll bring a lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about what Paul Marks had to say, that quote we read in the introduction. He is the — with the New York Law Department, New York City Law Department. He said, "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.”

ALAN LEVINE: They say they didn’t discriminate. The EEOC, which has no axe to grind, is the country’s premier agency with regard to employment discrimination claims, says that they did discriminate. I’ll go with the EEOC. I’m confident that a judge or jury will.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Debbie Almontaser, explain who Khalil Gibran is. The school is named after him.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Khalil Gibran is a philosopher and author who’s of Arab American descent, specifically Lebanese American, who came to the United States and lived in New York City and wrote both in Arabic and English and is very well known and respected for his book called The Prophet. And so, he is someone who is not only revered by Arab Americans, but also the broader American public and worldwide, for his philosophical writing.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how has the school been doing?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: I really don’t have any information on that, just what I’ve been able to hear in the press. It’s had some, you know, rough times, and it’s had some OK times, based on what I’ve heard in the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is the principal now?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: The principal now is Holly Reichert.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did she come from?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: She was an employee at New Visions.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you hope to be principal of the Khalil Gibran Academy some day?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Absolutely. It’s my life’s dream, Amy, to have the opportunity to lead a school that I created, with the help of others, to establish an institution that would set precedents in helping building bridges of understanding and certainly creating young people who will be global thinkers and, you know, competing in the twenty-first century workforce. And so, I’m still committed to that dream.

AMY GOODMAN: And what have you been doing over the last three years? Do you feel you were irreparably harmed by what took place?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, and Alan Levine, her attorney.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We will certainly continue to follow this case, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that she was unfairly dealt with by the New York Board of Education. We will see what happens next.

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