A New Jersey assistant teacher has been suspended after an Arab American high school student claimed the unidentified man called him a “terrorist.”
The alleged incident took place in the Ridgefield School District, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Mohammed Zubi, 17, a senior at Ridgefield Memorial High School, told CNN that he raised his hand during first-period math class last Wednesday to ask for additional time and the teacher’s assistant replied, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
“I’m looking around, at a loss for words, completely shocked,” Zubi said, telling the network that the remark was loud enough for the entire class to hear. Zubi said he turned to the girl sitting behind him to ask if she heard the remark and that student confirmed that she heard the same thing.
“The teacher got close to him and said ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ knowing that Mohammed is Arabic and Muslim,” senior Vuk Tomasese told WABC.
According to Zubi, the assistant teacher came up to him a few minutes later and told him he didn’t mean it like that while patting him on the back.
“In my head, I’m just like, what other way could he have meant that?” the Muslim student said.
“I don’t feel like going back, I’m really uncomfortable,” Zubi told WABC. “I don’t want to see anyone, and I’ve been in my room all day — don’t want to see my friends, especially after what that teacher said to me.”
Explaining that he didn’t return to school for nearly a week after the incident, Zubi told CNN Monday, “I went to school today for the first time. I want a public apology to me and my family.”
The Ridgefield School District released a statement over the weekend saying that the district “has absolutely no tolerance for any sort of discrimination against any student or staff member,” according to the network.
In the statement, Interim Superintendent of Ridgefield Public Schools Letizia Pantoliano said the district “cannot legally comment on personnel or student matters,” but wants the public to know that “the District immediately suspended the staff member while it is conducting a full investigation.”
“The District fully intends to pursue any and all legal remedies against the staff member,” the interim superintendent said, telling the network law enforcement was notified and asked to assist in the matter.
Ridgefield Police Chief Thomas Gallagher told CNN Monday the case was “referred back to the original agency” as Ridgefield Police did not find any crime associated with the incident.
Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), commented on the incident in a statement.
“We are very concerned about these allegations and urge the school district to take appropriate corrective measures following a swift and transparent investigation. This type of insensitive language by an authority figure is unacceptable because it perpetuates stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims,” Maksut said.
CAIR-NJ offered the Ridgefield school district diversity training for its teachers and staff to help combat Islamophobia and bullying, the executive director said, adding that they are dealing with another case involving alleged Islamophobia targeting a Muslim student in the state.
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