A very disturbing story is emerging from New York where the principal of the city’s first Arabic-language school (the Khalil Gibran International Academy) said that she was forced to resign over mild statements regarding a tee-shirt sold by an outside group. Debbie Almontaser was the target of a concerted campaign to get the administration of Mayor Bloomberg to fire her.
Let me begin by expressing the great irony in supporting Almontaser’s reinstatement. I have been a long critic of New York’s creation of special schools for gay and lesbian students, religious groups, and other groups. Click here and here and here.
Yet, if New York insists on continuing this Balkanization of the public schools, it should at least maintain a consistent treatment under our constitutional values. The pressure on Almontaser is perfectly bizarre. It began over a teeshirt and her apparent fatal failure in the eyes of some to condemn the message or makers.
The tee-shirt controversy began in early August over teeshirts with the phrase “Intifada NYC,” produced by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, a Brooklyn-based group. Almontaser merely said, when asked, that the word “intifada literally meant “shaking off” and thus did not clearly call for violence.
David Cantor, a spokesman for Chancellor Klein, has said: “In August, Ms. Almontaser said she resigned as principal from Khalil Gibran International Academy to protect the stability of the school and give it ‘the full opportunity to flourish.’” He said, “The chancellor agreed with her decision, accepted her resignation, and now considers the matter closed.” Really? I find it rather surprising that the chancellor of a major school system believes that a principal should resign in such circumstances.
She clearly should not have resigned and should have fought the issue on principle. Instead, her students saw a leader bow to pressure over free speech and yield to the demands of the mob.
While I do not support the school on the principle of a common educational mission and curriculum for elementary and high school students, it is clear that virtually all of the opposition has been directed at the specific mission and identity of this school. For example, as noted in the article below, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried this commentary on Feb. 14:
“Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there’s going to be the Taliban hanging out on the history hall, Al Qaeda hanging out by the gym, and Palestinians hanging out in the science labs. Hamas and Hezbollah studies will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in gym they’ll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they’ll convert the football field to a terrorist training camp.”
Such disturbing views reveal the motivations and methods of many who sought this removal. Mayor Bloomberg should step in and reinstate the principal. We should then continue a worthy educational debate over the rapid expansion of these specialized schools across the country.
As it stands, the city has taught its students an erroneous and dangerous lesson about the limits of the first amendment — an tolerance in a pluralistic society.