APPEALS COURT CALLS FOR EXPEDITED REVIEW OF DECISION ON ALMONTASER CASE
Lawyers and supporters vow to continue the fight for justice
December 7, 2007; New York, NY—The U.S. Court of Appeals ordered expedited review yesterday of a lower court decision denying a preliminary injunction to Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), NYC’s first Arabic dual language public school. By ordering prompt consideration of the district court’s decision, the Court of Appeals recognized the seriousness of the questions posed by Almontaser’s lawyers in appealing the case. “If the Department of Education appoints a principal while the appeal is pending, the Court of Appeals has the power to undo that appointment,” said one of Almontaser’s attorneys, Alan Levine. “By its grant of expedited review, the Court is acknowledging its willingness to do so if it finds that the DOE violated Ms. Almontaser’s constitutional rights.”
“Our work is still not done, and we are encouraged by the Court of Appeals action yesterday,” said attorney Cynthia Rollings, who is working with Levine on the appeal. The DOE forced Almontaser to resign in August after requiring her to answer question from the New York Post. The Post was at the forefront of a hate campaign against KGIA, reporting as news the false attacks circulated by school opponents in the conservative blogosphere.
Supporters of KGIA and Almontaser have vowed to continue their fight against the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred that fueled the attacks on the school, and to hold the Dept. of Education and Mayor Bloomberg accountable for subsequently caving in to this bigotry. Over 50 supporters were present in the courtroom on both days of Almontaser’s hearing, and another 75 came November 30th to hear the judge’s decision. “We are disappointed that Judge Stein did not make the right decision, not only because we support Debbie, but also because we support the school, the way Debbie envisioned it—as a school that will benefit all of our communities, not just the Arab community,” said Erica Waples, a spokesperson for Communities in Support of KGIA.
Proceedings began on November 30th, with Almontaser’s examination by Levine and Judge Stein’s refusal to allow Jacqueline Ancess, Associate Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University, to testify as an expert witness on the merit of Almontaser’s application as compared with other applicants. A statement by the Chancellor’s spokesperson that Almontaser would not be placed in the position, which followed her public announcement of her application to become permanent principal of KGIA, was the focus of the hearing. Levine and Rollings contended that the Chancellor’s statement reflected the same view the DOE held when it forced her to resign in August: that Almontaser’s comments about the word “intifada” were unacceptable.
On December 3rd, DOE lawyers cross-examined Almontaser, and the court heard testimony from Community School District 15 Superintendent Rosemary Stuart, who was responsible for reviewing applications to the position and did not recommend Almontaser for an interview. Stuart claimed she gave full consideration to the founding principal’s application. However, she admitted that she was appointed by the Chancellor, serves at his pleasure, has no contract, and can be fired by him at any time. She also admitted that she had praised Almontaser’s performance during the months she had served as KGIA’s interim acting principal. Almontaser’s lawyers argued that Superintendent’s refusal to interview Almontaser for the position demonstrated that she was simply ratifying the DOE’s publicly stated decision to not consider the founding principal. “Debbie’s willingness to challenge the DOE in court has been very important to all of us in the education community who believe that the increased centralization and arbitrariness of the C-30 process – the principal selection process – has deprived school communities of their rightful input into that process,” said Ujju Aggarwal from Center for Immigrant Families. “And that the DOE determined educational policy based on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism is shameful.”
The case, which took place after a 6-month media campaign by groups that alleged the school would indoctrinate students into radical Islam, is emblematic of a broader trend of repression of free inquiry and open discussion in schools and college campuses across New York City and the U.S. “We live in a climate of hatred and fear,” said Adem Carroll of the Muslim Consultative Network, “where a few right-wingers can attack both educators and students with views different from theirs and gain the support of powerful public officials. Judge Stein’s ruling is also cause for concern because of its sweeping restriction on the constitutionally protected speech of government employees.” “By making Debbie do the interview with the New York Post, a newspaper that has been boycotted by New York’s Arab and Muslim communities for racist reporting, the DOE fed her to the dogs,” said Mona Eldahry of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media. “Then they turned around and fired her for following their orders.”