PEARL STREET -- Debbie Almontaser, the beleaguered former principal of the city's first Arabic-themed school, filed a lawsuit Monday at United States District Court, Southern District of New York, against the New York City Department of Education, the chancellor and the mayor for violation of her free speech rights.
The lawsuit was announced at the New Federal Courthouse on Pearl Street, Manhattan, early Monday evening.
Almontaser stepped down as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) in August, shortly before the opening of the Boerum Hill school, after being criticized for comments to The New York Post that appeared to condone "Intifada NYC" T-shirts. Afterward, Almontaser said that she had been pressured to resign.
Alan Levine, Almontaser's lawyer, was scheduled to present the specific allegations contained in the lawsuit Monday evening. He was also expected to make the case that various city officials conspired to deny Almontser the opportunity to regain her position as principal, in violation of her constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, obtained by the Brooklyn Eagle Monday, states: "On information and belief, Almontaser has been excluded from the interview process, not because of her lack of qualifications, but because of her protected speech as reported in the New York Post last August and the capitulation of DOE and City officials to the disgraceful and discriminatory attacks upon her and the school." The suit chronicles the many attacks against the school and Ms. Almontaser in newspapers and on Web sites, including one group's efforts to link her to T-shirts designed by a group not related to Almontaser, but which rented space from an organization on whose board Almontaser sits.
After being advised to submit to an interview with the New York Post by the DOE, the suit states that she was asked during the interview about the Arabic origin of the word "intifada."
Almontaser explained that the word literally means to "shake off," but added that for many, given its association with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it implied violence. The lawsuit states that Almontaser expressed the belief that the teen-age girls who designed and sold the T-shirts did not mean to promote a Gaza-style uprising in New York City.
The lawsuit goes into the alleged distortion of Almontaser's words in the Post article, and suggests that the DOE did not defend Almontaser at this point. Rather, the suit states that the DOE sent her a letter chastising her for defending or explaining the T-shirts.
The lawsuit goes on to describe the pressure that was allegedly put on Almontaser to resign after the interview, starting with Gloria Rakovic, the director of New School Development at New Visions, and continuing with Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor for education and community development, who allegedly said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted her resignation by the next morning.
"Defendants' forced resignation of plaintiff was violative of plaintiff's constitutional rights," the suit says, adding that Almontaser will suffer economic loss, as well as damage to her career and reputation as a result.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education (DOE) replied that the DOE does not comment on ongoing lawsuits.
School Has Faced Enormous Opposition
A group called "Stop the Madrassa" has repeatedly attempted to link the school – and Almontaser — to various terrorist organizations. Brooklyn teacher Sara Springer and other members of the organization say they fear that textbooks and other teaching materials will be supplied by the Saudi-tied Council on Islamic Education, and that taxpayer dollars will be supporting "terrorist cells."
Ernest A. Logan, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, and other supporters issued a statement Monday backing Almontaser, saying, "Given Ms. Almontaser's obvious qualifications for the position as KGIA's principal, including her long involvement with creating the school's mission, developing its curriculum, and recruiting staff and students, the only plausible explanation for her exclusion from the group to be interviewed is the chancellor's unwillingness to allow her to be considered."