The founding principal of an Arabic-language school who lost her job after she made controversial remarks about the word "intifada" was discriminated against by the city Education Department, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled.
In the determination, released Friday by Debbie Almontaser's supporters, the EEOC ruled that the Education Department "succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel."
The Education Department had argued that Almontaser voluntarily resigned from her job as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy amid the uproar caused by her remarks to the New York Post defending the use of the word "intifada" on T-shirts sold by a women's community group.
The word is most commonly associated with the Palestinian uprising against Israel.
The EEOC insisted that Almontaser had been discharged. "A small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on (the Education Department) as an employer," the ruling said. The department did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Education officials had argued to the EEOC that Almontaser's handling of the press constituted unsatisfactory job performance and showed she lacked judgment. They argued she was later turned down for the job as permanent principal because she was not the most qualified.
Last year, a judge dismissed a separate claim by Almontaser in which she argued school officials had violated her right to free speech by forcing her to resign. She has appealed that ruling.
In the 2007 interview with the Post, Almontaser was asked about the "Intifada" T-shirts and was quoted as saying that the term meant "shaking off" instead of "uprising."
"I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of (violence) in New York City," the newspaper reported she said. "I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression."
The newspaper's headlines said she was "revolting"' and tied her to the "pro-violence" T-shirts. Subsequent newspaper articles, Web sites and broadcast coverage by multiple outlets branded Almontaser a radical and a jihadist.
A city press representative had initially said the interview had gone well, but the appearance of the Post's story changed the situation, the EEOC said.
"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 (the Education Department) to act," the ruling said.
The EEOC said the most "inflammatory" parts of the article "were characterizations and opinions either from the reporter or as attributions to unnamed others."
A call to a New York Post spokesman seeking comment was not immediately returned.
The controversy spawned a group called "Stop the Madrassa," which argued the school would have difficulty keeping Islam out of the classroom. The group called the academy "badly managed and inflammatory." An e-mail to a group spokesman was not immediately returned Friday.
The school went on to open under the guidance of acting interim principal Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish woman and non-Arabic speaker. It is a job that Almontaser still hopes to win back.
"That's her ultimate dream, that she be restored" to her role at the academy, her lawyer Alan Levine said Friday.
Almontaser has also asked for more than $300,000 in compensation for court costs, lost wages and pain and suffering. The EEOC has asked both parties to come to a "just resolution."
The EEOC's ruling carries no penalty, but if both parties don't reach a settlement, the ruling could be used in any new lawsuit brought by Almontaser against the city.