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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Muslim group says girl was threatened at school



Pinellas school officials were slow to respond after an 11-year-old Muslim girl was harassed, humiliated and last week threatened with death by a boy in her science class, an advocacy group for local Muslims charged Monday.

However, district officials said the staff at Azalea Middle School quickly took appropriate action and that the boy has been disciplined.

The problems started from the beginning of the school year for the St. Petersburg girl, said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR. Eighth grade students at Azalea taunted her because of her Muslim headscarf, he said. They called her a terrorist and asked if she was hiding any bombs.

The harassment stopped after her parents complained to the school, then a sixth grade boy began to bother her about 10 days ago, punching her in the arms and shoulders and once holding her against wall, his hands around her throat, Bedier said.

On Wednesday, when the boy ripped off the girl’s Muslim headscarf in second period science class, revealing her hair and neck, she cried. For a Muslim girl, Bedier said, it was like someone tearing off your skirt. The teacher who witnessed the incident told the girl to put the headscarf on in the restroom, he said.

The next day, when she asked to be moved to a different seat, the teacher told her she had to “earn it,” the girl said. Later during the period, the boy promised to start rumors she was a lesbian and said he would get a gun and kill her. By Friday, after her parents complained, a school official said they would handle the situation, Bedier said. Yet, by end of the day, the girl said she had not been interviewed by school officials or law enforcement.

“There’s no reason or justification whatsoever that, after repeated incidents of harassment and assault, officials at the school would not take action to prevent further things from happening,’’ Bedier said.

District spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said the boy has received “appropriate discipline,” that procedures were followed properly and that a school resource officer determined the gun threat to be “unfounded.” She said the district’s policies on keeping student information confidential prevented her from being more specific. Asked whether the school would separate the boy and the girl, Zahn said Azalea administrators “took appropriate procedures to ensure that the student would feel comfortable in her classroom settings.”

In a news conference, the girl, whose first name is Hannah, said she wants to switch to a more tolerant school. The family said she did not attend classes Monday because no one at the district called them to say how the incident was handled. Bedier would not release the girl’s last name.

Asked why she wears the headscarf, Hannah said in a determined voice: “Because I love my faith. And I chose to put the scarf on because my mom is my role model and she teaches me to put the scarf on. She teaches me to be a good Muslim too.”

Zahn said Azalea has been “proactive” in trying to prevent bullying and name calling. She said Azalea is one several schools piloting an anti-bullying program this year.

- Thomas C. Tobin

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:26am]


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