The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued a determination that the Department of Education discriminated against an employee who was playing a key role in the creation of school focusing on Arab culture and language by, for all intents and purposes, succumbing to a media frenzy against her.
The case involves Debbie Almontaser, long-time education department employee who has been active in promoting racial and religious harmony, particularly after 9/11. IN 2007, Almontaser was project director and interim principal during the planning of the Khalil Gibran Academy, a small public school, and seemed a likely candidate to be the school's principal when it opened. (The copy of the determination came Almontaser's lawyer; the commission said it is barred from commenting on discrimination complaints – or even confirming they exist.)
All that changed as a number of blogs and the New York Post stepped upattacks on the proposed school, calling it a madrassa and trying to portray Almontaser as a jihadist who would seek to spread radical Islam in city schools. The breaking point came after the New York Post interviewed Almontaser about the meaning of the word "intifada" and some t-shirts bearing the word.
The resulting story bore the headline "City Principal is Revolting." Writing on behalf of the commission, district director Spencer Lewis Jr. concluded, "The most inflammatory parts of the article as published were neither quotations from Ms. Almontaser nor legitimate background information; they were characterizations and opinions either from the reporter or as attributions to unnamed others."
Despite that, the Bloomberg administration urged Almontaser to step down from her post as interim principal and rejected her application to become permanent principal.
According to the commission's report, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott told the EEOC that Almontaser had become a "flashpoint" and that what he saw as her inability to handle the press had undermined the prospects for the school. This apparently prompted him to ask for her resignation.
In doing this, commission said, "DOE succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing prejudices on DOE as an employer."
In her complaint, Almontaser asked to be reinstated as principal and receive lost wages (she was demoted to a lower paying teacher's post following the furor) and $300,000 in compensatory damages.
In an email, Almontaser's lawyer, Alan Levine, said she would seek a settlement along those lines. If an accord cannot be reached, he said, "We will bring suit on our discrimination claim."
In a written statement, Levine said "To its everlasting shame, the DOE did the bigot's work. Now the EEOC has reminded us that it is the responsibility of government to stand up to the forces of discrimination, not give in to them."
We are awaiting a response from the Department of Education and will pass it along when we get it.