Here’s a national headline we’re dealing with today in Hunterdon:
Yes, as former New Jerseyan Donald Trump insists in the face of the Constitution that he’d ban all Muslim immigration, and part-time New Jerseyan Chris Christie raises the spectre of scary little Syrian orphans, the well-regarded high school that serves as a link between 5 sending districts here in pretty Hunterdon County has its own drama brewing of discrimination and racism. Which side to believe, however, may depend on who you’re listening to.
Teacher Sireen Hashem, a Muslim American of Palestinian descent,says she was fired from Hunterdon Central Regional High School (HCRHS) because the school district, school administrators, and her supervisors in the Social Studies department discriminated against her because she is Muslim. She sued a long list of entities this week, including the school, administrators and her Social Studies department supervisors. One item in particular from incidents detailed in the complaint stands out: that she showed a video about Malala Yousafzai, advocate for the education of girls and women, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan after she continued her schooling in defiance of a Taliban ban on educating girls. Malala is the youngest recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala video: Hashem says her problems began not long after she observed the U.S. History class of a colleague in the Social Studies department, Lindsay Warren, as part of her ongoing training. Warren showed her class the Malala video. Hashem showed the same video to her U.S. History class that same day, she says at Warren’s suggestion. Days later, Hashem was called into a meeting with administrators, who told her a parent had complained she showed the video. And she was told, she says, that “she could not teach current events in the same manner as her non-Arab, non-Palestinian and non-Muslim colleagues.” Lindsay Warren is white.
The ‘other side’: On a local Flemington Facebook page, you get a different point of view of what happened and why Hashem lost her job, but you don’t get much detail. From several people who claim inside knowledge of “the other side” of events, including people in board leadership or the employ of the local Flemington Jewish Community Center, there are allegations that the teacher asked Jewish students to identify themselves and treated them differently, particularly singling out one student over the course of a semester. There’s also an accusation that Hashem “lied about the circumstances of her brother’s death.” Efforts to get some specifics are answered with the statement that those in the know are “protecting current and former students.” I should point out that I personally know some of Hashem’s accusers; they live in my town, and that local Facebook conversation also includes me.
A Terrorist? I was mystified by the charge that Hashem “lied about the circumstances of her brother’s death” because I don’t believe Hashem or any other employee of the school district is responsible to discuss his or her personal or family life. Then I read Hashem’s complaint. She says a student posted allegations that her brother was a terrorist, that she is anti-Israel and attempted to instill anti-Semitic views in her students, and warned that she “may try to hurt students who did not agree with her.”
The complaint says the student posted that on Facebook – suggesting she came from a terrorist family and that she may harm her students. And that the message was widely shared.
In the Facebook conversation after news of the case broke this week, a local parent injects a complaint that the school calendar included a back-to-school night the night before Yom Kippur, when observant Jews would be unable to participate. That statement was off-topic, but I mention it only because when I asked what relevance that information had to the teacher firing, the response was that the scheduling was part of a “religious struggle” with administrators at HCRHS. A “religious struggle”? That seems to be exactly what Hashem says she’s the victim of.
There may be other shoes to fall when details of the complaints against the teacher are fleshed out. I’ll update. For now, the allegations by the teacher are very specific. They include:
- that administrators told her she was trouble from the start because she is Palestinian, that when Hashem said the white teacher showed the same Malala video without complaint, the administrator said, “you are not Lindsay.” Lindsay Warren is white, and not Muslim.
- that a local rabbi and several parents sought her firing solely because of her religion and heritage.
- that when 60 parents and students appeared at a school board meeting to support her, she was given only 30 minutes to present her case and only 5 of her supporters were allowed into the room, with all others shut out.
- that 2 FBI agents came to Hashem’s home, telling her they had a report that she threatened the school board, that “they will be sorry if she is fired.”
“Group Ethnic Loitering.” Flemington, which has had trouble recovering from the recession, the shuttering of the historic Union Hotel and the presence of strip malls and big box stores on its borders, is struggling to battle back, rebrand and rebuild, with a recent $90k-plus recently spent on a rebranding plan. This kind of story does little to advertise the town or local school as a desirable place to move or start new business. But it’s hardly the first troubling incident that suggests racism here. Just a few years ago, the local Republicans got themselves elected ginning up fear of Spanish-speaking immigrants in town. They sent out a big, glossy photo of brown-skinned men waiting for day labor outside a local convenience store (whose owner does not object to their presence). The faces were blurred out, their brown skin was clearly visible. The piece talked about the need to preserve “quality of life” against the Orwellian “group ethnic loitering.” Members of Borough Council put up a fight to the suggestion that, in a town with a 26% Hispanic population, borough announcements should also be made available in Spanish ** And a board leader of the local Business Improvement District wanted Borough Council to designate English as the official language of Flemington. And if you enter town from the north, one of the first things that greets you is a big Confederate flag hanging in the top window of a private home.
Sigh. I’ve lived in Flemington a long time. And this crap just kills me. Not just allegations of discrimination (on ‘both sides’) in the school, but the reputation that unless you’re white and doing well financially, you’re not welcome here. I know people who conduct themselves that way here. But I also know plenty who are horrified at this kind of reputation being pinned on this lovely little town.
** A member of my household voted yes in his capacity as Council member, and participated in discussion of the ‘English only’ suggestion.