Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of the city's first Arabic-language school, filed a federal lawsuit today [pdf] against the city's Education Department, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, charging that they violated her right to free speech and "conspired to deny her the opportunity to regain her position as principal" of the school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
Ms. Almontaser resigned under pressure in August, after a furor that erupted after she was quoted in The New York Post defending the use of the word "intifada" on a T-shirt. Last month, Ms. Almontaser said that she was a victim of a right-wing smear campaign, that she had been forced to resign and that she would apply to get her job back. But Education Department officials said that they would not consider her application among the 25 others that were submitted at the time.
The Education Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Ms. Almontaser's lawyers gathered affidavits from a number of supporters and provided excerpts from those affidavits, as quoted below.
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… Even more important than the legal issue is the implication of the Chancellor's actions for all principals and administrators in New York's public schools. … [P]rior to her leaving the school, Ms. Almontaser had the continuing support of all segments of the KGIA community, and the only controversy was that which was created by a few newspapers and bloggers. Under those circumstances, a decision by the Chancellor that public controversy trumps school support and professional qualifications sets a bad precedent that discourages independent and professional leadership.
From Michelle Fine, professor of psychology and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York:
The lack of an aggressive defense of Almontaser by the Department of Education signals an insidious nod to those extremists who seek to undermine public education by silencing, censoring, intimidating and demonizing many -– including disproportionately Arabs and Muslim Americans. These extremists pose a fundamental threat to democratic education, both in K to 12 and higher education. [The Education Department] has threatened every public school administrator and educator who dares to educate all children well, and in the process creates an intellectual environment in which controversial topics can be addressed. … Given her long history as a peace educator in New York City, and her vital role in coalition building post 9/11, the loss of Almontaser as principal of KGIA throws a shadow of shame on us all; what my mother, Rose Fine, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, would call a "shanda" –- a deep, penetrating shame that saturates the soul of our civic community.
It was … particularly gratifying that a group of my colleagues signed a letter to the mayor and to the chancellor expressing our view that those who had attacked Ms. Almontaser did not represent the views of the mainstream Jewish community. … There are regrettable antecedents to the litmus test to which the press and the DOE subjected Ms. Almontaser, most notably in the regularity with which African-Americans are asked to denounce outspoken members of their community. The idea that there is only one acceptable view on issues of public concern is not only at odds with our constitutional guarantees, but is a perversion of the Jewish tradition of vigorous debate and discussion on all questions of importance to our people. … I hope that this court will remedy the great wrong that has been done to [Ms. Almontaser].